It’s another cold night at sea off the coast of Thailand. The moon is glowing and it’s light rolls a pathway of white onto the sea. The light extends into the circle window of the lower level of the ship into my cell that allows me to write. I know that my two hours of designated time to sleep have just begun. This means it should be around 3:00 am.
When I was at home with my family in Burma, the mornings were my favorite part of each day because they were so peaceful. At sea, the mornings are hell. My morning began by being awoken by the screams of men, a sound that bounced off the metal walls and sunk into my bones. The slaveholders will tase(1) all of the captives at 5:00 am every morning. They laughed hysterically and claim that they give us “energy”. I can never decide on which is worse, being woken up by the taser or by the screams of the other men. After I am tased, I begin walking up to the deck where we will begin a 20-hour workday (2). I usually look to the sun to estimate the time of day. However, today was so foggy and grey that I felt as if time would never move, partly because I couldn’t track the time of day from
the sun. There was no sun. All morning I assume, we casted our nets into the sea and lugged them back aboard, each time, full of trash fish3. A windy rain overtook the seas but we continued working until we were granted our routine 2-hour sleep time from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm. The entire groups of captives were shivering when we were finally granted our rest. The only
clothing I have is the same pair of shorts, short sleeve shirt, and under garments that I was wearing the day they captured (4) my family and separated us.
1 Men trapped at sea may experience extreme torture, often by means of electric shock. See Dow.
2 Slaves are forced to work up to 22-hour workdays aboard Thai fishing vessels. See Lazarus. 3 In Thailand, slaves working to catch fish that is inedible to humans run the fishing industry. See Cadigan.
The same day I was kicked aboard this awful vessel, 106 days ago.
When we were kicked awake at 5:00 pm after our rest time was over, we began the second part of our monotonous day. The gusty winds picked up the speed and it became very cold. My tan and scarred fingers resembled shriveled prunes that looked identical to my bare, cold feet. The winds became too cold (5) and too aggressive to work in, but when a young man who looked about the same size as me stopped working to warm his hands, he was pushed onto the wet metal deck. The slaveholders beat him with ropes until he began to cry. He tried to recover as quickly as possible when they told him to get back to work. I knew he was hurting after his beating, but I couldn’t help from feeling grateful that they didn’t catch me when I tried to warm my hands.
When the misty rain finally let up, the temperature showed no mercy and continued to drop. The entire crew of captives shivered as we prayed for 3:00 am to arrive. Not too long after our afternoon rest, the captain turned on the white lights at the front of the boat. The grey sky shifted to black and I knew that 3:00 am should be approaching soon. The extremely bright
headlights stung my eyes and each time I looked away to see the yield in my fish net, I couldn’t shake the burning white light that lingered in my eyes. My arms were covered bumps and my body was shivering excessively. Each time I lifted a net full of fish, I had fought against my quaking body.
Once 3:00 am finally came, we were pushed down the stairs into our cages in the lowest level of the ship. There, a piece of boiled cold fish waited for us in a bowl.
(4) Men are trafficked into one of the largest slave industries across the world: the fishing industry where they fish commercially to provide products on a global scale. See Rose. (5) Slaves trapped at sea are often tortured with extremely cold temperatures at sea or may even be sexually assaulted by other men. See Lazarus.
As I nibbled on my supper, I remembered the way Papa used to cook fish at home. The thought of his special seasoning made my mouth water. I reminisced on the nights at home that I could fall asleep comfortably, without my stomach screaming at me to feed it. My stomach aches from hunger and I begin to wonder about my family. I miss them uncontrollably. I think I can hear the footstomps of the slaveholders and the buzz of their taser. I have to go!
I am beyond thankful to be in my cell tonight. I can almost hear my skin sizzle. Our two hour sleeping period is probably almost over, so I am assuming it is 4:00 am. My skin burns so much that I cannot sleep and the light from the moon is just enough in my cell to allow me to write.
This morning the slaveholders slapped us awake with wet rags. They slapped our bare skin, including our faces. Before the slaveholders made it to my cell, I could hear them furiously slapping the man next to me. They were screaming at him to get up but his body was limp and he never moved. The body was so lightweight that it only took one slaveholder to carry him to the deck and toss him overboard. We began catching trash fish like every morning. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would catch the body of the man in my net. I dismissed the thought and so I could continue working.
The sun began to rise bright and early, a sight that made me sick to my stomach. The air was stagnant and cool, but the sun was relentlessly evil. We worked on with our nets but as time slowly passed, the sun became almost unbearable. In the midst of working, I saw a boat in the
distance. I didn’t know if I was hallucinating from dehydration or witnessing our rescue but I prayed for the latter. Once the boat finally met ours at sea (6), men were pushed off of the boat (7) and
onto ours. Our boat had almost double the amount of slaves now. One looked as young as 15 years old. I wondered if he was taken (9) from his family (10) like I was. An old man waved to our captain and sailed back in the direction he had come from, leaving our ship with almost twenty
more men (11). A slaveholder yelled to us all, “Share a cell! Sleep time begins now!” The boy walked up to me and asked if he could share cells with me so I agreed. I wondered if he knew what his life was about to become. Sleep time was horrible. The new men were screaming, yelling, and spitting curse words out of their bars and to each other. The guards cut our two-hour time break short because of all of the noise. The slaveholders yanked us all out of our cells and drug us to the top deck, even the
ones like Selm and I who were not talking. Once everyone was outside under the pounding sun, the slaveholders took the rope that we used to move our buckets and pull in our nets. They screamed at us to shut up and began to beat (12) us with the heavy rope. I tried putting my hands
over Selm to prevent some of the hits, so I ended up taking double the amount.I need to put down my pen and notebook in order to get a little sleep before the day tomorrow. Otherwise it will be even more miserable than it already will be. Goodnight.
6 Boats that remain at for long periods of time typically use slave labor aboard their ship. See Rose.
7 Some farmers have transformed their fishing boats into vessels that carry trafficked slaves to fishing boats at sea.
8 Some slaves trapped aboard fishing vessels are as young as 15 years old. See Sutton and Siciliano. 9 People may be lured onto fishing boats by fake promises of a high paying job, but once they are loaded onto an
illegal fishing vessel, they may remain trapped at sea for many years as a slave. See “Fishing: Global”).
10 Most of the captured men are forced to work several years at sea after being separated from society and their
families. See Rose.
11 Over half of the men captured and sold in the fishing industry were originally from Myanmar and Cambodia. See
12 Slaves trapped at sea report frequent beatings and are typically held captive by chains or other forms of
containment. See Sutton and Siciliano.
Although the light from the moon is bright enough for me to write, I can barely see the words through my tears. I am writing this at the beginning of our sleep time, meaning it should
be around 3:00 am. I sit in my own filth (13) and acknowledge the fact that I will not sleep tonight. Today was horrific. This morning we were woken up again by the tasers. Selm and I walked to the front deck and began to unravel our nets to throw into the cold waters. I worked quietly while Selm
mumbled under his breath. Being woken up by the tasers always infuriated him. I watched Selm work in aggravation while I struggled to pull in my heavy catches, along with the rest of the crew, until mid afternoon.
When it should have been time for our rest, the slaveholders yelled commands in our faces, demanding that we catch more fish. They pushed us towards our nets and slapped our backs with old ropes that we had used to work to catch fish with that morning. I bit my tongue and tried to endure the burning pain, but Selm had had enough. He turned around and swung his hand at the slaveholder behind him. He continued punching until they fell to the ground. The other slaveholders immediately grabbed Selm while one of them knocked him unconscious. I tried to force my way to him but the crowd around the scene was too thick. The slaveholders drug Selm down into the cells. The rest of the crew stood frozen. Never had I heard silence that loud before.
The slaveholders that remained on deck threatened our lives, claiming that if we dared to hit anyone over them, we would experience a painful death. Tears filled my eyes and my gut began to churn. I couldn’t imagine what they were going to do to Selm. We lugged up our nets as the slaveholders remained behind. For the remainder of the day they yelled as our faces that we needed to work harder. They spit on our backs and faces.
13 Men trapped at sea are rarely allowed to shower and cleanse themselves. See Lazarus.
If anyone looked like they weren’t working. The sky started changing colors while the sun begin to set. I reminded me of the ones I would enjoy with my family at home. It was beautiful. I could see our supply ship (14) coming in to bring us necessities for the next month. When the ship pulled next to ours, the slaveholders began screaming in Thai. Three were holding Selm slaveholders and they slowly struggled up the stairs and Selm screamed as he tried to fight it. Long ropes were tied to his arms and legs and he almost tripped as he struggled with the slaveholders up the stairs. The slaveholders tossed two of the ropes that were still tied to Selm across the deck to the other ship. Men tied those ropes onto their ship. I wasn’t sure what
was going to happen, but I began to feel sick. The slaveholders tied the other two ropes to the bars on the front of our deck. I made my way to Selm and the slaveholders with tears in my eyes.
I tried to untie the ropes that bound Selm together while pushing the slaveholders away, but there were too many of them. They held me down and tied my body with ropes. We were both helpless. I made eye contact with Selm, but the tears were too heavy in both of our eyes. They
pushed Selm off of the deck. I screamed an awful noise that came deep from my gut while Selm hung above the waters, tied to both of the ships. Both boats began to steam when
aptains cranked them up. The boats moved slowly apart, pulling (15) Selm in two opposite directions. His screams were desperate and morbid (16). I hurled what little food I had onto the deck. It wasn’t until after an eternity of hearing blood curtailing screams, they stopped. The water splashed and there were no more noises. The slaveholders screamed at the crew but the
only thing I could hear were the ghostly screams that remained in my brain.
14 Secondary vessels are used to transport goods to slave ships that remain at sea. These supply ships prevent illegal
fishing boats from having to return to docks for supplies and risk being caught. See Chen.
15 In the fishing industry, slaves are subject to murder. In some cases they may be tied to different boats by rope and
pulled apart in opposite directions. See Cadigan.
16 Slaves aboard fishing vessels frequently experience or observe “execution – style killings at sea”. See Lazarus.
I was pushed down the stairs into my cell. They tied my hands and feet to long rope, the exact way it had looked on Selm.
I sit in this filthy cell and wait like I have for the past 119 days. I sit here as a son, a brother, a native citizen of Burma. When they come to unlock my cell, I will walk up the stairs a slave, leaving behind my true identity. I pray safety and love for my family, wherever they may be. I hear the slaveholders stomping.
Cadigan, Hilary. “A Shocking Look at Thailand’s Modern Day Slavery.” Chiang Mai Citylife, 2 July 2014, https://www.chiangmaicitylife.com/citynews/features/a-shockinglook-at-thailands-modern-day-slavery/.
Chen, Kelsey. “Saltwater Empires: Slavery in the Thai Fishing Industry.” Harvard Political Review Saltwater Empires Slavery in the Thai Fishing Industry Comments, 31
Oct. 2018, https://harvardpolitics.com/world/saltwater-empires-slavery-in-the-thaifishing-industry/.
Dow, Steve. “’Such Brutality’: Tricked into Slavery in the Thai Fishing Industry.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 Sept. 2019, https://www.the
“Fishing: Global Slavery Index.” Fishing | Global Slavery Index, https://www.globalslavery index.org/2018/findings/importing-risk/fishing/. Accessed 27 Oct. 2019.
Lazarus, Sarah. “Slavery at Sea: Human Trafficking in the Fishing Industry
Exposed.” South China Morning Post, 13 June 2015, https://www.scmp.com/
Rose, J.J. “Thailand’s Slave Fishermen: What’s Needed to Solve the Crisis?” Thailand | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 13 Sept. 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features
Stoakes, Emanuel, et al. “Revealed: How the Thai Fishing Industry Traffics, Imprisons and Enslaves.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 July 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/jul/20/thai-fishing-industryimplicated-enslavement-deaths-rohingya.
Sutton, Trevor, and Avery Siciliano. “Seafood Slavery.” Center for American Progress, 5 Dec. 2016, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2016/