Thailand-SuffocationD 4thLd-Writethru 04-10
54 illegal Myanmar migrants suffocate in back of truck in Thailand
Eds: UPDATES with quotes from survivor, color from tv footage, details on chronology of events
AP Photo BK802, BK803
By SUTIN WANNABOVORN
Associated Press Writer
BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Fifty-four migrant workers from Myanmar, most of them women, suffocated in the back of an unventilated seafood truck in southern Thailand while being smuggled to the resort island of Phuket, police said Thursday.
The victims, along with 47 survivors, had been forced to stand in the truck’s sweltering and padlocked container, police and survivors said. They were about two hours into their trip late Wednesday in Ranong province near Myanmar when they started collapsing and the driver stopped, police and survivors said.
Twenty-one of the survivors were hospitalized and the rest held for questioning, he said.
"I thought everyone was going to die," said Saw Win, a 30-year-old survivor, told The Associated Press from police custody. "I thought I was going to die. If the truck had driven for 30 minutes more, I would have died for sure."
Win said that about 30 minutes into the trip workers pounded on the container, screamed for air and called the driver, who briefly turned on the air conditioning. The air conditioning later went off, and they called the driver again 30 minutes later but his phone was off. They continued pounding and screaming until he stopped the truck about an hour later, unlocked the container and ran off when he saw the state of the victims, Win said.
Local television footage showed police lifting bodies out of the container and images of the container empty except for a few pieces of clothing. The dead workers — many wearing little more than T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops — were seen laid out on the floor of a local charity.
"When police got to the scene, they found that 54 of the workers were already dead in the packed container truck," Kraithong said.
Of the dead, 37 were women and 17 were men.
Police did not immediately know what jobs they were heading for in Phuket, but illegal migrants from Thailand’s impoverished neighbor generally come to the country to work in the fishing and construction industries or as maids.
Police were searching for the truck’s driver, who they accused of failing to provide enough air conditioning in the back of the truck, and members of the smuggling gang they believed arranged the trip.
Kraithong said the truck normally was used to transport seafood. The 101 migrants were crammed into a container about 7 feet by 20 feet, he said.
The incident was reminiscent of the deaths in 2001 of 58 illegal Chinese migrants in a sweltering tomato truck in Britain, which exposed the murky underworld of people-smuggling gangs who profit from migrants who hope to earn a living in more developed countries.
A group of 19 Latin American migrants died from overheating and suffocation in a tractor-trailer truck in the U.S. state of Texas in 2003.
The survivors of Wednesday’s mass suffocation told police they snuck into Ranong province from Myanmar’s Victoria Point by fishing boat Wednesday night and were then packed into a small container truck for a trip to Phuket.
Ranong province is about 290 miles south of Bangkok just across from Myanmar’s Victoria Point, and is regarding as a major point of trade between the two countries.
There are about a million Myanmar workers registered to work in Thailand, and an additional million estimated to be in the country illegally to work mostly as laborers, joining hundreds of thousands from Cambodia and Laos.
The illegal workers lack legal protections and are often ruthlessly exploited.
Some of the Myanmar migrants flee their country to escape armed conflicts between ethnic minority rebels and the Myanmar army, and others for lack of economic opportunity in their impoverished country, one of the poorest in Asia.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International found in a 2005 report that workers from Myanmar take jobs that Thais consider too dirty, dangerous or demeaning, "are routinely paid well below the Thai minimum wage, work long hours in unhealthy conditions and are at risk of arbitrary arrest and deportation."
Many also face great risk in reaching Thailand. In December, authorities recovered the bodies of 22 Myanmar migrants found floating off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea. They were believed to be trying to enter Thailand illegally.