‘Thought this was the end’: Tamilians trapped in Myanmar return

By, Chennai
Oct 06, 2022 12:19 AM IST

The following day, their ‘bosses’ took away their mobile phones and ID cards without which they could have no water or food. They had no money and they could not leave “office premises”. They had watched how their peers were assaulted. The CCTVs had been turned to focus on their rooms.

On August 15 night, 16 Indians, who had been held hostage by a fraudulent company in military governed Myanmar, complained to army personnel that they were forced to be cyber criminals and tortured if they refused to work.

On August 15 night, 16 Indians, who had been held hostage by a fraudulent company in military governed Myanmar, complained to army personnel that they were forced to be cyber criminals and tortured if they refused to work. (ANI)
On August 15 night, 16 Indians, who had been held hostage by a fraudulent company in military governed Myanmar, complained to army personnel that they were forced to be cyber criminals and tortured if they refused to work. (ANI)

The following day, their ‘bosses’ took away their mobile phones and ID cards without which they could have no water or food. They had no money and they could not leave “office premises”. They had watched how their peers were assaulted. The CCTVs had been turned to focus on their rooms.

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They saw their ‘bosses’ drinking beer knowing that they were going to be tortured for complaning. Gripped with fear all the 16 Indians gathered in one room. In 30 minutes, a man entered their room. He said he was from the local Myanmar police and that along with the army and Border Guard Forces, they were there to rescue them. All the 16 men cried.

“We thought this was the end of our life and all 16 of us gathered to be with each other. When we saw the policeman, we cried and cried,” said Stephen Wesley. He is among the Indians and 13 Tamilians who reached Chennai at 2pm on October 5. These men have returned home after they had left with a dream of a well-paid job, been duped in Thailand and trafficked to Myanmar. Living like slaves, they eventually escaped only to be detained for illegally crossing the border before they were finally rescued.

How they got duped

Wesley, 29, is a graphic designer, who had worked in Bengaluru before Covid-19. During the pandemic, he moved with his family to Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore and continued to design independently. A former colleague connected him to a HR in Dubai for a Chinese company recruiting in Thailand. They offered Wesley $1,100 per month which was more than double the money he was making. He was promised he would be given work in the company’s graphic department after he worked for a month in customer support and data entry.

In July, Wesley flew to Dubai for an interview where he met 13 others (7 among them had returned Wednesday post midnight) from various districts in Tamil Nadu who, like him, had arrived through various agents. Some of these job offers, they said, have been advertised on social media platforms like Facebook. They had been offered jobs in their field of work and most of them were freshers in their early 20s. “We had been given jobs in our respective industries,” said another man who returned not wishing to be named.

They were put up in Dubai’s Investment Park. But the interview never happened for a week. They spent 15 days in Dubai. “We had a Whatsapp group. Communication was coming from official emails so everything looked normal,” the man quoted above said. Then all of them were asked to send a video and told all of them were selected. They suspected something was not right at this point. “We were all given ID cards but it only had our photos and some Chinese letters. It didn’t look like a proper ID card,” Wesley said. “But the rest of the aspects seemed professional and we were given proper food.”

They were flown from Dubai to Bangkok via an Emirates flight.

Everything was fine until they were taken to Mae Sot, a city in western Thailand that shares a border with Myanmar to the west. From here, they were driven in a car for another 450 km. “We realised they took us illegally just to drop us,” the person quoted above said.

A series of events from here would be their life’s most traumatic experience. They reached an unknown destination at night. Their phones were taken away. They couldn’t communicate as none of them spoke a common language. “It was raining heavily. Four people came in a truck. They took our bags and split us into two cars,” said Wesley.

Four in one car and three in another, they were driven to a river. “There was no security there. We assumed it’s a river inside Thailand,” he said. They crossed the river in the dead of the night when it was still raining. When they reached the shore, they faced four more men fully armed. “Two of them were carrying big guns.” Two others were holding pistols. “They took pictures of our passport. They sent us to wait in a cow shed for an hour,” Wesley said.

Their phones were returned to them. It was 2.30am. It’s only then they checked their phones to see that they were in Myanmar. A company car came to pick them up.

“It was a concentration camp”

Wesley recalls that they were taken into an isolated place which looked like a temporarily set up camp. “It was a place where once you get in you know there is no way out,” he said. The security was tight and armed. “They were all Chinese.” The company had no name.

There were rows of 500 rooms. Each room was for seven of them to sleep together crammed on the floor, wake up, shower and go to an ‘office room’. Wesley and the other 13 had no rest. They were made to sign a one-year contract. They couldn’t read it. They had to report straight to work which started from 6pm and went on till 6am.

“40 steps from my room, I can reach the canteen. Another 30 steps from there, I can reach my office,” Wesley said. The 100 steps were his life for the next 45 days. “It was like we were in jail. Actually, it was like a concentration camp. On our first day, the Chinese workers were punished severely to terrify us. They were given electric shocks in front of us,” Wesley says. They were punished for reasons ranging from not achieving targets to asking questions, the employers didn’t like. All of them reached out to their agents but none of them cared. Wesley’s Dubai HR with a fake name Diana didn’t respond and he later reported her and all the agents to Tami Nadu DGP.

Enticing the wealthy

The work, Wesley narrates, was to create fake profiles on social media like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and send requests to become friends with those who seemed wealthy from the photos they upload. The targets were usually businessmen. “We had to continuously chat with them, bring out their emotional experiences to a point where in a fortnight the person I’m chatting with has to feel that they cannot live without talking to me.” The fake profiles were created in the opposite gender to lure either the rich man or woman to invest in a platform on Google Playstore. “When they start making large-scale investments, their chapter is closed. Everything is blocked. Their money’s gone.”

Wesley was given 7 iphones for his targets. His most heart wrenching was when he was forced to chat up with a 38-year-old man diagnosed with cancer in England. “It was mental torture. I knew he had cancer. I could never sleep at night,” Wesley said. Failing his targets meant corporal punishment. He was also given a list of 3,000 Indians from the business world and matrimonial sites as targets.

Wesley did get punished for not sending more photos to his target. “I said in one of the chats that I was having dinner but I didn’t send a photo of dinner which makes it less believable,” he says. He was given 3 options of punishment- walk like a frog, work extra hours or get a salary cut. He chose to work extra for 18 hours and he was punished to stand for 6 hours outside.

“We didn’t like it from the beginning. We came to do normal computer work but we had to speak to customers to trick them into investing,” said a second man who returned to Chennai not wishing to be identified. “If we had to leave, they told us to pay $6,000 and none of us could afford that.”

Two of them from their 18-member team decided they will pay the amount to return. Until they arranged the money, the two were handcuffed and made to share a plate of food. They were short of a thousand dollars when the remaining 16 members offered to pool in from their salaries.

The way home

The two men – both from Punjab – returned to India and informed the Indian embassy and the Myanmar’s chief of army. This set the ball rolling for their freedom. “They helped us and simultaneously we kept contacting the Indian Embassy and the Myanmar army,” said a third person who also requested anonymity. On August 15, a few army personnel came to the office around 7pm. Wesley and his team told them everything that had happened but refused to go back to the office out of fear. The army promised them they would be rescued and created a Whatsapp group before they left.

The following day, before their phones were taken away, one of them managed to send an audio note to the Whatsapp group, saying “We are in danger. Help us. Immediately.”

So, when the 16 had crammed together fearing their lives end, help had arrived. They were taken to the army quarters on August 16 and stayed the night there. “It was the first moment we felt freedom,” Welseys says. They were there for another 5 days until the army retrieved their passports from the company.

Then the army took them to the same river and left them there. “They showed us how to go on the map but we couldn’t understand their language.” The 16 of them walked in the dense forest at night for an hour before they reached a road.

In another 7km the Thailand’s immigration officers detained them on charges of crossing the border illegally. “We proved we are victims but they couldn’t understand us. We were jailed for two days. We didn’t even get water.” Then the Indian embassy sent an emissary and they were shifted to the Human Trafficking Victim Centre where they were kept for another 15 days. They were taken to court next and fined 4,000 Thai Baht. Following that they were taken to the Immigration Detention Centre where they were kept alongside criminals in an indoor stadium of 500 people. This is where these men recorded a video of their plight and released it seeking rescue.

With the help of a journalist, Wesley contacted Jacintha Lazarous of the department of rehabilitation and welfare of non-resident Tamils. The government was in touch with 17 Tamilians. On September 21, Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin sent an SOS to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting an urgent intervention. “After the state government intervened, the Embassy was also regularly in touch.”

Lazarous said after the documentation was complete, the state government booked their tickets. “Until we landed yesterday, we were treated like accused,” said Wesley. Several other Indians are still trapped in Myanmar and the union government has assured that all of them will be brought back.

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    Divya Chandrababu is an award-winning political and human rights journalist based in Chennai, India. Divya is presently Assistant Editor of the Hindustan Times where she covers Tamil Nadu & Puducherry. She started her career as a broadcast journalist at NDTV-Hindu where she anchored and wrote prime time news bulletins. Later, she covered politics, development, mental health, child and disability rights for The Times of India. Divya has been a journalism fellow for several programs including the Asia Journalism Fellowship at Singapore and the KAS Media Asia- The Caravan for narrative journalism. Divya has a master's in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick, UK. As an independent journalist Divya has written for Indian and foreign publications on domestic and international affairs.

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