By Stewart Bell
Part I ~ BANGKOK — The Vembus Restaurant is a small room with green wallpaper and a big ceiling fan that spins above tables covered with plates of spicy South Indian food.
The owner, Vidya Shankar, is from the Sri Lankan capital Colombo and he estimates there are 2,000 to 3,000 of his countrymen in Bangkok, most of them waiting to travel to other countries.
“So many refugees are here,” he says.
Restaurant owner Vidya Shankar speaks during an interview in Bangkok on Friday February 25, 2011 ~ pic courtesy of: Brent Lewin for National Post
In 2009, one of them appeared at the modest hotel Mr. Shankar runs above his restaurant. His name was Siandran. He was a young man of 19 or 20, and he confided that he had been a member of the Tamil Tigers rebels.
He had no money to pay for his room and board so Mr. Shankar put him to work cooking at the restaurant and packing shoes for export to Sri Lanka (Mr. Shankar’s other business). “He worked hard,” Mr. Shankar said. “He didn’t have any money, very poor.”
Siandran stayed in Bangkok for months. And then one day last year he just left. Mr. Shankar said he did not hear from him again until last month when Siandran called.
He said he was in Canada.
Siandran had been aboard the MV Sun Sea, the human smuggling vessel that arrived off the British Columbia coast last August. Mr. Shankar said he knew nothing about Siandran’s smuggling plans.
But others in the Silom neighborhood said it was widely known that a ship was being readied to take Sri Lankans to Canada.
In Silom, Sri Lankans find a temple, cheap rent and familiar meals. “They can get the food at the temple sometimes, even they can share the room,” said Oliver, a Sri Lankan eating at Mr. Shankar’s restaurant.
Most want to go to Canada but a police crackdown that began last fall has made that more difficult and Tamils are no longer confident they can transit through Bangkok to the West, he added.
Some of those who got on the Sun Sea had been involved in the Tamil Tigers, said one member of the community who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals.
The Immigration and Refugee Board has already ordered the deportation of two of them, both found to have been members of the rebel naval wing. Another whom the government had accused of being a former rebel was found not to have been a member the Tigers.
The recent arrests of Sri Lankans awaiting ships in Bangkok has driven some to the outskirts of the city, said the longtime Silom resident, adding they are all waiting to go elsewhere. “Not only Canada,” he said. “Any country.”
Not far away, at the Saverah Inn, an employee recognizes a photo of a man who allegedly helped organize the Sun Sea smuggling operation — and who is now in Canada. Locals said the smugglers housed some of their human cargo at the hotel until they were brought south to board the ship.
The hotel is in a small alley in an Indian neighborhood. Portraits of Thailand’s king and queen hang behind the counter. A tenant said tour groups of 20 or 30 would stay for a few days but he did not recall anything untoward.
Owner Ajmal Khan said he simply rented rooms and knew nothing about smuggling. “What they are doing, we are not interested,” he said, adding he no longer rented rooms to Sri Lankans.
On the smugglers’ trail: The multi-headed snake
He once earned his living exporting Indian-made leather jackets to Paris but Sathiyaseelan Balasingam has since found a more lucrative business: selling passage to Canada in rusty cargo ships.
The 41-year-old, who goes by the nickname Praba, is the suspected leader of a human smuggling network that has been collecting money from Sri Lankans willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to board ships to Canada.
Birds are released from their cage for good luck at the Sri Mariamman Temple. The temple, also known as the Wat Khaek Silom Hindu temple is on the Silom Road neighbourhood of Bangkok, where many Sri Lankans stay while waiting to transit to other countries. Courtesy pic: Brent Lewin for National Post
His share of the profits just from the MV Sun Sea, which arrived off the British Columbia coast last August, is estimated by Thai police to be at least $1.6-million. After several years in Bangkok, he fled Thailand last year — but the RCMP believes he is still at it.
As recently as January 20, Inspector George Pemberton, the head of the RCMP’s anti-human smuggling team, sent a letter to the Royal Thai Police asking for help investigating Praba’s latest attempt to organize asylum seekers for another migrant ship to Canada.
On the smugglers’ trail: ‘So many refugees are here’
An RCMP investigation called Project Seahorse is probing the suspected attempt by Praba, together with two associates based in Malaysia and Bangkok, to assemble more passengers for a human smuggling run across the Pacific.
Working below Praba and his accomplices, who go by the names Ragulan and Kajan, are nine others who have been recruiting passengers, collecting money from them, caring for them and organizing the trip, the letter said.
Royal Thai Police are investigating.
“While you are interviewing me,” said Lieutenant-General Pongpat Chayapan, Commander of Thailand’s Central Investigation Bureau, “I am aware that there is a network, a smuggling ring, that is preparing to smuggle people over to Canada.”
The arrival of the MV Sun Sea, and 10 months before that another derelict migrant ship called the Ocean Lady, signaled that Canada had become a target of Southeast Asia’s human smuggling syndicates.
It also set off a political debate in Ottawa over what to do with would-be refugees who pay criminal syndicates to ferry them to Canada’s shores in such large numbers, and using such a dangerous method of transport.
A retired 59-metre freighter painted the colors of the Thai flag, the Sun Sea carried 492 passengers and crew, both seemingly genuine refugees and former Tamil Tigers rebels. It has so far cost Ottawa $25-million.
And with a spring election looming, the issue is sure to resurface on the campaign trail. The Conservatives have already aired television ads that call the Liberals and Bloc weak on national security for opposing new anti-human smuggling legislation, Bill C-49.
Despite all this attention, the human smugglers behind the ships have managed to avoid public scrutiny — until now. A National Post investigation, based on classified documents and interviews with key officials as well as unofficial sources in several countries, has identified the key suspects.
The Post investigation has also shed light on Canada’s new anti-human smuggling program in Southeast Asia, which has disrupted at least one ship so far and resulted in the arrests of several suspected smugglers.
Among those arrested in Thailand are a former Toronto convenience store owner and another Canadian citizen who were allegedly caught with engine parts, oil and food that police allege was being stockpiled for a British Columbia-bound migrant ship.
The fight against human smuggling ships has also resulted in the mass arrests of hundreds of Sri Lankan migrants who had fled their war-beaten homeland, and many of them remain locked up in an overcrowded Bangkok prison.
The smugglers are under pressure.
Since Thai police, in coordination with the RCMP and Australian Federal Police, began cracking down last year, several of the top human smuggling ringleaders have fled Bangkok for neighboring countries. But with so much money to be made, they are still trying to send migrant ships to Canada.
“A group including Praba, Ragulan and Kajan and others are organizing passengers for an illegal migrant vessel to Canada,” reads the RCMP’s letter to Thai police. “Praba is believed to be in Laos. We believe Praba to be Sathiyaseelan Balasingam, born Nov. 19, 1969.”
A photo of Praba in the files of the Royal Thai Police shows him arriving at Bangkok airport in 2009, a chubby Sri Lankan with a goatee and dark, slicked-back hair. According to a copy of his passport viewed by the Post, he was born in Jaffna, the northern region of Sri Lanka, where the country’s ethnic Tamil minority is concentrated.
In the Silom Road neighborhood of Bangkok, where many Sri Lankans stay while waiting to transit to other countries, locals recalled seeing Praba at the Wat Khaek Silom Hindu temple. They said he lived in France before moving to Bangkok and that he has a Thai wife and two children. Another Tamil source said he had once operated a leather clothing export business in the southern Indian city of Chennai, where he is suspected of smuggling small groups of migrants to Europe by air.
Thai police said he had no permanent address in the Bangkok, instead preferring to move from place to place, staying with those they call his “jackals” — the loose network of agents who hunt for desperate migrants willing to pay generously to be delivered to the West.
“He used to live in Bangkok,” Major-General Pansak Kasemsant, Deputy Commissioner of the Royal Thai Police Immigration Bureau, said. “After the Sun Sea case, after he has received the last large sum of money, he left Thailand.”
Police believe he made his way north and illegally crossed the Thai-Laos border, which stretches for hundreds of kilometres. The RCMP believes he is now living 700 kilometres north of Bangkok in a city called Luang Prabang.
Formerly part of French Indochina, Laos was bombed relentlessly during the Vietnam War. It is described as the most heavily bombed country in the world, on a per capita basis. U.S. warplanes pounded the country for harboring North Vietnamese troops who used it as a supply route. And now Laos is apparently harboring a notorious Sri Lankan migrant smuggler with his eyes on Canada.
Acquaintances say Praba has a fish farm and rice paddy on the north central plain where the Mekong River joins with the Nam Khan. It is from this new hideout that police believe he is overseeing yet another smuggling operation to B.C.
“He has fled Thailand and as long as he’s not in Thailand we can’t do anything,” Lt.-Gen. Pongpat said. “And even though he is not in Thailand there are networks that are still left in Thailand and they are forming a new operation and the RCMP are overseeing this, are monitoring their activities.”
The suspected members of Praba’s human smuggling ring are based in four countries. All are Sri Lankans by birth. Kajan, whose real name is Gajan Sinniah, 29, has used a forged Canadian passport to travel in Asia, the RCMP letter said.
Also being sought is a Sri Lankan named Bathiskumar Senthilnathan. “We believe that he is part of the network but he has escaped the country after the Sun Sea operation,” said Major General Manoo Mekmok, Commander of the Investigation Division of the Royal Thai Police Immigration Bureau.
Police believe the recruiters have been using Western Union to wire the money they have collected from passengers to organizers outside the country. Among those gathering passengers for the new ship is a man who is also trying to collect outstanding debts still owed for the Sun Sea.
Another of the suspected recruiters, known as Thusi, worked out of Bangkok’s Phong Tower apartment building. Located off a narrow side street, known in Bangkok as a soi, laundry hangs from the balconies. A woman leans over the railing and waves hello. Outside, meat for Thai satay cures on a long metal rack.
The front counter receptionist recalls a Sri Lankan with a baby but she says no more.
Canadian officials believe the smugglers have the capacity to send several large, steel-hulled migrant vessels to Canada each year. Used ships are easy to find in the region, and there is an ample supply of would-be refugees waiting in Thailand, Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka.
“Without getting into operational specifics, there are a lot of Tamils in Bangkok. There are a lot of Tamils in Malaysia who are here seeking refugee status,” said Insp. Pemberton, the Bangkok-based RCMP officer who heads the Anti-Human Smuggling Team. “I think it would be naive to think that some of them wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to find a faster way to get to a better life.”
Police have produced complex organization charts of the smuggling networks based partly on analyses of their phone calls. But police and experts cautioned that the smugglers are not necessarily formally structured.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which has an anti-human smuggling office in Bangkok, the networks do not always have a leader or mastermind. Instead they have one or more “coordinators” or “organizers” who have overall responsibility for the operation.
The coordinators subcontract others to carry out tasks such as recruiting passengers, purchasing the ships, provisioning the ships and housing the migrants. These networks, which are based largely on personal contacts, evolve constantly and change from one operation to the next.
“Often, recruiters may not be affiliated with one particular smuggler,” says a recent paper by the UN crime office. “They often live permanently in the country of origin or transit and have a good knowledge of the language of the migrants, and may even know them personally.”
A Canada Border Services Agency report said 45 such agents had been identified in interviews with the Sun Sea migrants. Thai police said they had the names of about 20 agents. “We have the list and we’re investigating and trying to catch them,” Maj. Gen. Manoo said.
The UN crime office paper said network organizers are seldom brought to justice. But the RCMP said it was trying. “It’s a national tactical priority to prosecute these things in the criminal justice system,” said Deputy Commissioner Bob Paulson, the head of Federal Policing.
The RCMP has sent a handful of officers to Southeast Asia over the past year to work with local authorities, notably the Royal Thai Police, which responded by launching Project Hydra — a name that reflects the Thai view of smuggling networks as multi-headed snakes.
“Our aim is for the top tiers of the organizational network,” said Maj.-Gen. Pansak of the Thai police Immigration Bureau. “So once the top tier, the head, has been cut, of course the whole body won’t function.”
Thai police believe they severed one of those heads on Jan 12.
Acting on information provided by another government agency, officers descended on the Lat Pla Khao market area of Bangkok that morning searching for eight men.
An old woman chopping chicken in her shop said the officers asked about the foreigners. who were staying in the pink apartment building around the corner.
But she didn’t know the tenants well so the police left her and climbed the four flights of stairs to apartment 4/2, a small room with a single fluorescent tube on the ceiling, a white tile floor and a balcony overlooking the traffic and the airline office across the street.
Police took a Sri Lankan man into custody. His name was Santano Fernandes, an alleged member of the smuggling network. “He looked very polite,” said the landlord who rented him the room for 2,500 baht a month, about $80. His passport, which the landlord had photocopied, showed he had made several recent trips to Laos.
At nearby apartments, police captured five more Sri Lankans, an Indian and a 47-year-old German named Jeyanandan Nadesan, who Maj.-Gen. Manoo described as Praba’s “right-hand man” and the top human smuggling agent left in Thailand.
The RCMP was later permitted to question him.
Seven weeks after his arrest, Mr. Nadesan emerged from his cell at Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre on Suan Phlu Road wearing a bright orange prisoners’ t-shirt, pale blue shorts and white sandals.
Compact and tattooed, the Sri Lankan-born detainee refused to speak to a National Post reporter but did meet briefly with the Thai translator working for the newspaper. He insisted he had done nothing wrong and was not involved in smuggling people to Canada.
The Thai police report on Mr. Nadesan tells a different tale. It says he was the leader of a group of agents who were “illegally delivering Sri Lankans of Tamil ethnicity to third countries using Thailand as a transit point.”
The group “had succeeded in so doing around August, 2010. At that time, approximately 492 Sri Lankans of Tamil ethnicity illegally entered Canada via Sun Sea vessel. At present, Mr. Nadesan is considered the biggest such agent in Thailand.”
At the time of his arrest, he was “in the process of illegally delivering another approximately 200 Sri Lankans to Australia during February, 2011,” the report adds.
A second Thai police report says the passengers were to be taken from the southern port city of Songkhla to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. From there, they were to cross to Indonesia to a pier where they would board a ship to Australia.
It says Mr. Nadesan ran the network for Praba, adding he controlled another 80 Sri Lankans who were staying in the Bangkok neighborhoods of Banglumpoo, Ramintra and Don Muang, waiting to go to Canada.
But Mr. Nadesan said it was all a mistake.
He said he had lived in Germany for 25 years and only moved to Bangkok to be with his Thai girlfriend. He said he did not understand why people thought he was a bad guy.
He said someone must have reported him to police, maybe another Sri Lankan who was jealous of him.
Why would they be jealous?
“I don’t know,” he said.
With Mr. Nadesan in custody, police are now hoping to get the man they call his “boss.” Praba’s name has been placed on a watchlist and he will be arrested if he attempts to re-enter Thailand, said Maj.-Gen. Manoo.
“We really want to arrest him. We believe that he will commit the crime again, he will try to smuggle people from Sri Lanka again,” he said.
“He won’t stop.”
~ courtesy: The National Post ~