From: Reuters
Published April 11, 2008 05:17 AM

Police hunt for driver of Thai death truck

By Nopporn Wong-Anan

SUKSAMRAN, Thailand (Reuters) - A Thai court has issued an arrest warrant for the driver of a container truck in which 54 Myanmar migrant workers suffocated as they were smuggled into Thailand, officials said on Friday.

The owner of the truck, in which 120 migrants were crammed upright in a 20-ft locked container and began passing out when the air conditioning failed, was arrested on Thursday.

The driver, identified by police as Suchon Boonplong, was believed to be hiding on the southern tourist island of Phuket after he abandoned the truck late on Wednesday.

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"Police from various units are looking for Suchon and other people involved in the trafficking ring," Police Major-General Apirak Hongthong told reporters.

Both men will be charged with conspiracy to hide, help or smuggle illegal aliens into Thailand, and for careless actions causing death, police said.

If convicted, they face a maximum 10 years in jail.

Survivors said they pounded on the sides of the truck and tried to call the driver on his mobile phone after the air conditioning system failed.

"We contacted the driver using a mobile phone, but he told us in Burmese to keep quiet and make no trouble," Tida Toy, 21, told the Bangkok Post newspaper.

"He switched off the phone and drove on," she said.

Their horrific deaths have sparked outrage from rights groups and renewed calls for tough action against human trafficking networks in the region.

DESPERATE FOR WORK

About 2 million migrants from across the region are working in Thailand, most of them fleeing the former Burma where 46 years of army misrule have crippled a once-promising economy.

Only 500,000 migrants are in the country legally, a Labour Ministry official told Channel 9 television.

Under Thai law, registered migrants have the same rights as Thais, but in practice this is far from the case. They are routinely denied access to such basic rights as education, medical care and freedom of movement.

The vast majority of migrants are unregistered and work illegally in factories, restaurants, at petrol pumps and as domestic helpers or crew on fishing trawlers.

Once at work, many migrants, both legal and illegal, suffer abuse, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said.

Its research found 75 percent of Thai employers interviewed believed it was okay to lock up migrant workers so they "couldn't escape." There is also evidence of forced labour and child labour involving migrants, it said.

Bangkok could not be held accountable for desperate people fleeing poverty, but it was "obliged to prevent the exploitation of those migrants in Thailand, regardless of the documentation they may or may not have," ILO East Asia Director Bill Salter said.

The Asian Human Rights Commission worried that Thailand would use this tragedy as a pretext to crackdown on migrant laborers, who often do jobs that Thais will not.

"These people are propping up their country's economy, and thus doing their part to prevent a much greater catastrophe on Thailand's doorstep," it said.

The survivors were due to appear in court in the southern province of Ranong on Friday to face charges of illegal entry. Police said some could be deported immediately after the hearing.

Aye, whose 8-year-old daughter died in the truck, said she could not provide for her other two children in Myanmar -- a 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son -- if she was unable to work in Thailand.

"I am very worried about my future. What will happen to my two children at home? I can't afford to live at home. There is nothing for me to do there," she told Reuters from her jail cell.

(Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by David Fogarty)

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