17 JULY 1982, Page 9

`Slave-girl' mystery solved

Derek Davies

On Monday, 27 March, the Daily Mirror featured a story on its front page by its chief foreign correspondent, 1979 'Jour- nalist of the Year' John Pilger. A prominent headline — 'Exclusive: I bought this child for £85' — ran across the top of a photograph of a sad-eyed but plump- featured eight-year-old Thai girl named Sunee. The introduction ran: 'John Pilger bought this little girl for £85. She was a slave, she is eight and lives in Thailand in South-East Asia. She is one of an estimated 200,000 children forced into hard labour in sweat shop factories or as domestics and prostitutes.'

Inside, a three-page story described how Pilger, presumably accompanied by a photographer, Peter Stone, and a British social workers, Tim Bond, had purchased Sunee. The story described how a flock of women child-catchers (known as 'fisher- women') wait to grab children arriving at Bangkok's railway station from Thailand's impoverished rural north. Sunee was one of their catches and Pilger had bought her (with a proper bill of sale) from a woman contact, 'Mrs Moon.' Despite her plump appearance in the photograph, Pilger described Sunee as being 'very thin and malnourished' with a 'bronchial wheeze.' Pilger reported that she said she had been kidnapped by an 'Auntie' while her mother was away in the fields and had been brought to Bangkok on a train (adding sur- prisingly, for a Thai eight-year-old: '1 don't know what Bangkok is or where'). Sunee went on to describe her week-long suffer- ings in a children's slave shop where she was beaten for breaking a dish and fed on scraps, until Pilger bought her through an intermediary from a cafe near Mrs Moon's home in central Bangkok.

Tin trying to broaden my mind.'

Pilger reported that Sunee had never been beyond the paddy fields of her village in North-western Thailand before, and the only clue to her origin was an entry on her bill of sale: 'Near school, Phitsanuloke.' Nevertheless, the party hired a couple of cars and started out on the journey to return Sunee to her mother. They passed through Bangkok's Patpong district 'where the massage parlours and VD clinics are concentrated, where the foreign tourists go and where Sunee might have ended up.'

The journey through the side streets of Patpong was somewhat surprising at the beginning of the 300-mile trip (akin to star- ting a description of a drive from London to Edinburgh with an account of a detour into Soho), but made Pilger's point. The convoy reached Phitsanuloke at dust and understandably had some difficulty in locating Sunee's home. Sunee directed the drivers: `Go to the temple' and, `Go to the school.' And so they did (again somewhat curious, for Phitsanuloke is a town of 125,000 inhabitants and boasts numerous schools and temples). But they could not locate Sunee's home.

Then occurred a most amazing and for- tunate coincidence — the face of the little girl's mother suddenly appeared at the car window. Weeping, they were re-united. The mother and her little daughter, both giggl- ing and sobbing at once, then led the party along a winding track through tall grass (though apparently they were still within the town of Phitsanuloke) to their home, a one-room tumbledown shack leaning on a `mound of scabrous earth.' It was a scene of 'landless poverty as stagnant as the malarial pool beyond' (though the upper central plain of Thailand is not a malaria area). Sunee's mother, a '38-year-old widow' named Daeng-Toi, told how Sunee had been abducted. The mother had refus- ed the offer of a 'fisherwoman' to take Sunee away because she was her last child, her son and her daughter having been taken from her when aged two and six respectively. (Pilger did not explain why abductors should bother with children as young as this, thus saddling themselves with the ex- pense of their upbringing).

Sunee had never attended school, mainly because, according to Pilger, her mother had never married — though Pilger himself describes her as a widow; and Sunee had no birth certificate — somewhat surprising in a family of three in Buddhist Thailand where illegitimacy rates are low. 'The Daily Mir- ror,' Pilger reported, 'is arranging for her to get one [a birth certificate] and paying to help her stay at school.' (This was again a surprising choice of words, in view of the fact that she was said never to have attend-

ed school.) Pilger recorded correctly, that no people love their children more than the Thai's and attested to the affection and respect he has for the Thai people. But, he alleged, the government of Thailand — 'run by generals' — has many problems and strange priorities, preferring to encourage the building of luxurious hotels and promote cheap exports rather than irrigation schemes, for example, which would benefit the poor countryside. This is hardly fair. The hotels are built by the private sector while Thai agriculture (energetically aided by government schemes) has recorded per- sistent growth (five per cent last year) and Thailand has long been Asia's only net ex- porter of food.

Before the British bought Thai goods, Pilger suggested, they should ask the ages of those who had made them. He ended by reminding his readers that Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond was due to visit Britain, inviting his readers to write to the premier c/o the Thai Embassy in London (the address was provided) calling on him to free the 200,000 Thai 'slave children.'

As Paisal Sricharatchanya of the Far Eastern Economic Review, who has con- ducted most of the research into this episode, recounts in the next article, some cynicism greeted the press conference called by the Thai Labour Department Director- General, Vichit Saenthong, to denounce the Pilger story as a fabrication. Vichit in- troduced to the journalists Sunee herself and both her parents (far from being dead, the father was a sergeant in the Thai Army, serving in Southern Thailand). The mother

(whose real name is Toi Nantapan) told the press that they were long-time residents of Bangkok. They had been persuaded to take part in a charade by an acquaintance. They believed they were posing for pictures or taking part in a film. (They did not appear to realise the difference). Vichit also con- vincingly questioned Pilger's statistic of 200,000 slave children'.

Neither the Daily Mirror nor the British radio stations who had picked up the original story thought it necessary to report Vichit's denial or the appearance of the family at the press conference. It would appear that the only British journalist to note the anomalies in the episode was Auberon Waugh, who pointed out in the Spectator that he was 'scarcely in a position to decide' the truth of the matter but mentioned the possibility that Pilger and Bond had been the innocent victims of Thai confidence

• tricksters.

Mr Waugh added: 'Perhaps I am being old-fashioned, but it seems to me that for a major British newspaper to be accused of fabricating evidence to support an untrue story amounts to a fairly serious charge under any circumstances. If the charge is made by the responsible minister of a respectable friendly government, somebody, somewhere might care to look into the matter, and decide which is telling the truth.'

Shorty thereafter the Spectator received a libel writ from Pilger's lawyers, Nicholson, Graham and Jones, against the Spectator, its editor and Waugh, and a demand for a swift retraction and an apology were made. At this point, the Spectator and the Far Eastern Economic Review embarked on a joint investigation into the matter. Evident- ly, our enquiries reached the ears of Pilger's lawyers, for Nicholson, Graham and Jones telexed the Review: 'It has been brought to our attention that you may be con- templating referring to Mr Pilger's ar- ticle...the allegations made by Mr Waugh are strongly denied ...our clear instructions are that the Thai version is bogus, and the libel actions are to be pursued vigorously.'

Nevertheless, the Review's inquiries con- tinued and have established clearly that Waugh's hypothesis — that Pilger and his companion had been bamboozled by Thai con-men — described what, in fact, occur- red. As Paisal recounts, the go-between Santi has confessed that he mounted the deception because he was unable to find a suitable girl for Pilger to purchase. Notaris- ed statements and documents show that Sunee and her mother are resident in Bangkok and that, since 1979, Sunee has been enrolled at Bangkok's Prompan Wit- thaya School.

This revelation raises even more ques- tions about the Pilger article — not least the detailed and circumstantial account of his conversations with Sunee about her days as a 'slave' and his descriptions of her terrified distress. Sunee is evidently a little girl with an inventive imagination and considerable acting ability (but then many Thai's enjoy acting).

Every visitor to Bangkok — and to most other Asian cities — has been approached by professional 'fixers' who claim to be able to arrange anything the stranger may desire. For pressmen, they offer to act as drivers and interpreters, smoothing visits to the refugee camps and to the Cambodian border. It is surprising that a journalist of Pilger's reputation should have made use of such a go-between and still more surprising that he did not inquire more closely into the background of the alleged 'slave girl' who was trotted out for him to 'purchase. The same story has been done before, by the BBC itself and a German magazine, but their research was more thorough.

No one, least of all the Thai authorities, denies that the problems of child exploita- tion and prostitution exist. But Pilger exag- gerated their scope. The influx into the cities of Asia — from Shanghai to Djakarta — appears to be an unavoidable ingredient of economic progress. Pilger ignores the fact that the huge majority of the migrants find jobs as unskilled workers and that many of them, even those who start in unlicensed factories, make good. Then they are able to relieve their families' rural poverty by sending money back to the countryside. Pilger's article damaged Thai- British relations and could well have damaged the economy of Thailand by sug- gesting that the British should avoid buying Thai goods, a development which could hardly ameliorate the very poverty Pilger laments.

Derek Davies is editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.