PHUKET: After being contacted by the Phuket Gazette today, local officials and community leaders are taking action over fears that children and teens at the sea gypsy village in Rawai are entering a downward spiral of drugs and prostitution, with girls as young as 10 reportedly offering sexual services to adults.
Rawai sea gypsy community leader Ngeem Damrongkaset, 69, told the Gazette that he is aware of drug use among children in the community. However, he says there is little he can do to stop it.
“There are people from outside of our community who are trying to get our teenagers involved in drugs,” said Mr Ngeem. “They use some people in our community to try to get the kids hooked.”
Fear of violent reprisal by the drug dealers is preventing the children involved in drugs, as well as their parents, from reporting the dealers to the police, said Mr Ngeem.
“Even though we know who is dealing drugs in our community, we cannot do much about it,” he explained. “We are genuinely concerned about the safety of the children involved, and anyone who gets in the dealers’ way.
“The best I can do is play my role as a community leader. People in the community trust me. When I get the chance, I talk to the children’s parents. But some of the children do not want help. If they resist efforts to stop them from using drugs, there is very little I can do.”
GRIPPED BY FEAR
The threat of violence is no stranger in the village, said Mr Ngeem.
“A young girl was reportedly raped by her grandfather in our community,” he explained, adding that the threat of violence by the alleged rapist effectively stifled any investigation into the claim.
“The family moved here years ago. The grandfather is about 60 years old, his wife is about 50 years old and the young girl is about 10 years old,” said Mr Ngeem.
“About two years ago, the grandmother told me that she had just found out that the girl had been raped by the grandfather. I asked her to file a complaint to police, but she was too frightened.
“So they are still living together in the same house, but now the grandmother keeps a much closer eye on her granddaughter to make sure she’s safe – that’s how limited their choices are.”
FEEDING THE DEMON
While villagers live on in the shadow of the child-rape allegation, there is a growing fear that many other children are getting hooked on drugs and turning to prostitution to feed their addiction, said Alin Hadsaithong, an Urak Lawoi elder at the village.
Mr Alin told the Gazette that he has become very concerned about children in the village being drawn into the dark underworld of prostitution and crime – but feels powerless to prevent it.
“It seems like many of the young Moken sea gypsies who live on the west side of the pier [apart from the main sea gypsy village on the east side] are involved in prostitution.
“I do not have clear details about this. Nobody really talks to me about it, but the children gather at the end of the pier at about 5pm and stay there until very late.
“Men of all ages are often seen walking or riding their motorbikes up to the end of the pier and picking up girls and riding back to shore. They return a short time later and drop the young girls off.”
“I have heard that these girls are not forced or groomed into prostitution, but are choosing to do it to get money,” he said. “Many of them are from very poor families or are even abandoned and have to support themselves.”
Mr Alin believes that the nightmare began when some of the youngsters saw sea gypsy widows turn to prostitution for money to feed their families.
“It’s no secret that’s how prostitution started at the end of the pier. Then young girls, some as young as 10 years old, saw this and wanted to do the same so that they could get money – and some of those youngsters are using the money to buy drugs,” he said.
Mr Alin fears that those girls will be drawn in too deep – trapped by a vicious cycle of drugs and prostitution.
“I think the girls have no idea what they are doing and what trouble they may be getting into. I don’t want to report them to the police – they need help, not to be arrested. There’s also the fear of violent attacks by the drug dealers,” he said.
Pimporn Khorsantiwichai, director of the Phuket Office of Social Development and Human Security, told the Gazette that she had not received any reports of child prostitution or drug abuse by youths at the sea gypsy village.
“But now we have, and we will certainly look into it,” she said. “We will send our staff there and talk about it in confidence with the villagers.”
Regarding the fears of drug use and prostitution among the young girls, Ms Pimporn said, “We have to talk with a lot of villagers to address the issue. Each family has a different set of problems.
“We might start with the families that we have already been in close contact with. We have previously visited the community to ask parents to not let their kids beg tourists for money.”
Ms Pimporn explained that working on such issues with the sea gypsy community was delicate.
“If the community does not help us by providing information, we will have a tough time helping them,” she said. “If they keep us out, we cannot do much about it.”
However, Ms Pimporn also said that the issue was critical.
“If there is child prostitution taking place in the community, it must be stopped as soon as possible,” she stated. “But we will bring other departments to work on it, as we cannot tackle this issue alone.”
Ms Pimporn has already raised the issue with Rawai Mayor Aroon Solos, who yesterday told the Gazette that the problem of drug use and alleged child prostitution in his ambit was brought to his attention only weeks ago.
“Officials are now investigating all the claims, including the alleged child-rape. It is a sensitive issue, but the victims must be helped,” he said.
“So far I have received scant details. I have talked to the relevant departments about it, but we need to confirm more.”
Mayor Aroon has called for the heads of relevant government agencies in Phuket to meet in order to discuss how the investigation is to proceed.
“It is a very sensitive issue. We have tried talking to the villagers, but we did not get much information from them. They don’t really want to talk to outsiders about it.
“Some of these people do not want help. They just want to live without any interference. However, we will try our best. The sooner we stop this, the better for the children and for the community.”
— Chutharat Plerin