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Using Art to Fight Human Trafficking in Cambodia

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Download Cambodia’s Prum Anan Vannak thought he was going to earn big money working on a Thai fishing baot. Instead he was beaten, tortured, starved and paid nothing.

He is one of an estimated 100,000 Cambodians and Burmese who are sold into slavery in Thailand’s fishing industry every year.

Thailand is one of the world’s largest exporters of fish but it has a serious shortage of fishermen. Human traffickers have stepped in to fill the gap.

As Khortieth Him reports trafficking survivor Prum Anan Vannak is trying to educate people about the human trade through art. He was recently named as one of the world’s 10 anti-trafficking heroes by the United States.


33-year old Prum Anan Vannak smiles as he welcomes me into his one bed-room wooden hut.

We walk over to his special corner, a wall covered with drawings.

He sits down and starts to draw... a fishing boat with men carrying heavy loads. One of them is Vannak.

Six years ago, after failing to find work in his village, he left his pregnant wife and headed for the Thai-Cambodian border.

There he met a taxi driver who offered him a 30 US dollar a month job in Thailand...he was not told what he would be doing.  

Vannak thought he would do it for two months and then go home.

Things turned out very differently.

“I was asked to sit and sleep in the boot of a pickup truck with seven other people. It was a very small space. They covered us with black cloth. We changed cars three or four times before we reached our destination at night. I was locked inside a room for a night, then put onto a fishing boat the next morning. I didn’t know what was happening. I was forced to sit inside a closed box in the boat. After delapan days at sea, I was freed when I came out all I could see was the ocean.”

Vannak had been sold, along with 13 others, to the captain of a Thai boat.

They worked there for the next three years – 20 hours a day. They were given only a small amount of food and were paid nothing.

“They beat and kicked us like animals. Sometimes they use ice blocks to hit me on the head. They called us bad names and it was common to hear someone call you ‘crazy’. With my own eyes, I saw one man’s head get cut off and thrown into the sea. The dead body was floating in front of us. Life on the boat was a thousand times more dangerous than you can ever imagine.”

He rolls up the sleeves of his t-shirt to show the scars.

There are more on his back, thighs and legs.

“Torture and beatings were common. But I what I was most afraid of was the sea. Evertytime a storm came, I prayed to my mother and Buddha asking for the ship not to sink. I would have died if the boat sinked.”

Once at sea, Thai fishing boats often go for months, even years, without coming into land.

But one day in 2009, the ship was anchored four kilometres off the Malaysia’s coast.

When the rest of the crew were asleep, Vannak and another Cambodian worker jumped overboard and swam to freedom.

“I wanted to be arrested by the police, so that they could hand me over to the Cambodian embassy and go home. I didn’t want to stay and work in Malaysia. I wanted to go home.”

But in the police station, he was sold by an officer to a palm-oil plantation.

After several months of forced labor in the plantation, a fight with another worker landed him in police detention.

There he was able to contact LICADHO, a Cambodian human rights NGO.

Pilorge Naly is the group’s country director.

“We were able to identify his location in Malaysia and then work with another group outside Cambodia to make sure that he will return to Cambodia. We worked with NGOs in Malaysia, ILO and Cambodian embassy in Malaysia. We've been doing this for years. And because we also have provincial offices in Cambodia, we were able to assist him back to his village in Pursat province."

After four years Vannak finally returned home in 2010.

At first, his wife Cheng Kun did not accept him.

“I used to cry and missed him so much. But then he left me without any explanation. I was furious! When he first came back home, I didn’t allow him to come inside our home. I didn’t believe his story. I couldn’t accepted that he had be gone for years and come back with no money! I thought he might have another wife in Thailand and was just telling me a lie. But my parents begged me to forgive him, and finally accepted him.”

After returning home Vannak started drawing images about the horrors he had experienced.

LICAHDO is using Vannak’s drawings as part of the anti-trafficking campaign – the last exhibition was held on June this year.

Manfred Hornung is a legal advisor with the group.  

“He’s a Cambodian, he knows how to conect with the Cambodian people through arts. And he has lived what is shown in the drawings—it’s not second-hand stories. So this is the best combination for telling the Cambodian people to be careful about the dangers of being trafficked through art.”

Pilorge Naly LICAHDO’s country director admires his work.

“If you look closely at his arts, every image has so many details about what happened to him in the past. It’s really fascinating. Every time I look at one of his drawings, I picked up something new that I didn’t see the last time I saw it.”

Back in this wooden house Vannak is putting the finishing touch to his latest drawing.

It shows what daily life was like on the fishing boat.

“I can’t stop people from migrating, but can only offer advice. You must be prepared and find out about the working conditions you are going into and whether it’s legal or illegal. I think staying and working in our home country is much better than migrating. I also want the government to take actions against the illegal brokers especially those working on the border.”
Last Updated ( Monday, 13 August 2012 11:51 )  

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