A self-purported NGO in Chiang Mai is drawing fire for allegedly selling 'world citizen' identification to stateless and hilltribe people in a con that is preying on the poorest of the poor
Published: 18/11/2012 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Spectrum
For hilltribe and stateless people arriving in Chiang Mai by bus, it's almost impossible to miss the offices of the self-proclaimed NGO boasting it can give them instant passage to a better life in Thailand and around the world.
Buses must pass down a busy main road to enter the bustling Arcade bus station. Glance out a bus window and you will be at eye-level with the shopfront signage of the Law Enforcement Investigation Organisation, or OrTorRor, and its subsidiary, the World Citizen Organisation (Humanitarian Force NGO).
For more than a month the organisation has been under fire following a report on investigative TV programme Perd Pom on the Thai PBS channel that alleged it was selling cards to thousands of stateless people, at prices ranging from 1,000 to 30,000 baht. Some promise UN-mandated "world citizenship", others the right to work legally anywhere in Thailand without a work permit.
A Spectrum investigation has revealed the group is still openly operating in Chiang Mai and local police have taken no action against them, arguing that no official complaint has been received.
Hilltribe people who claim they were duped out of thousands of baht are unwilling to make a formal complaint to police, not only because of fears they will get into trouble for working illegally in Thailand but also because of concerns of retribution from the organisation and harassment by the police. It's virtually impossible to quantify how many people have been scammed, but one seller of the cards said he sold 500 and couldn't keep up with demand.
Social workers said the scam had been operating for at least two years.
Spectrum also interviewed the head of a Bangkok-based NGO that shares almost the same name as the Chiang Mai outfit, who distanced his organisation from the northern group and said they had filed a complaint with security officers.
A former employee of the Chiang Mai operation also revealed how he bought his position, received 3,000 baht commissions on card sales and was encouraged to tout the service to hilltribe people.
However, when the suspected head of the operation was interviewed by Spectrum in the Chiang Mai office recently, he angrily insisted his organisation was a legitimate NGO that was the subject of a media witchhunt.
"This is so unfair," said the portly, middle-aged man who simply referred to himself as Pi.
"What we are trying to do here is to help stateless people, hilltribe people, aliens and underprivileged people who live in Thailand. We are working hard to ensure that these people can remain here without fear, and all we get back is false accusations [that we are defrauding people]."
DEALING THE CARDS
Dao, a 25 year-old Tai Yai (Shan) woman, first came to work in Chiang Mai 10 years ago. But with no work permit or official documents she lived in constant fear of being caught and sent home.
She also knew that applying for a work permit could take six months and be costly. Hope arrived one day earlier this year in the form of a man and woman who visited her uncle's home in the San Kamphaeng district of Chiang Mai province and told him about the cards that could legitimise his stay in Thailand.
"They came to urge him and people in his village to buy the special privilege card that would allow them to travel legally within Thailand as well as other countries," she said. "They told my uncle that the card is certified by the United Nations."
Her uncle was told by the pair about the various types of cards and packages on offer. The most expensive "world citizenship card" would allow him to travel and work in any country. The pair also made a special offer to Dao's uncle, telling him if he paid 12,000 baht upfront he would receive a guaranteed return of 3,000 baht a month for 10 months from the organisation. Dao says her uncle decided the offer was too good to refuse.
"He paid 12,000 baht to buy the card," she said. "He said even though it was expensive, we had nothing to lose."
Dao said she could not afford the 12,000 baht card, so she opted for the standard 1,000 baht one that the pair said would allow her to travel and work anywhere in Thailand. She paid the money, gave them two ID photos and the laminated card was delivered to the house the next day.
"The reason I trusted them was because they told me that they were from the Law Enforcement Investigation Organisation and I had seen their huge office near the Arcade bus station," she said.
"I never used the card to go anywhere or do anything. Then I heard from friends who have the card that they were arrested for not having work permits. My friends said they presented the cards they had bought, but the police didn't recognise them. That's when they knew the cards were worthless."
Dao has since applied for an official work permit, which took six months to process and cost her 10,000 baht. She now realises there's no such thing as a "magic card".
"At that time I thought the card was too good to be true, and that's how it turned out," she said.
Jusa, a 21-year-old man from the Akha tribe in Chiang Rai came to work illegally in Chiang Mai, knowing he could not apply for a full-time job with a decent salary.
Every morning, along with hundreds of other illegal migrant workers, he would head to Chiang Mai's Kamthieng market and hope to be picked by contractors for manual labour which paid less than the minimum wage. For Jusa it was better than nothing.
''Earlier this year, a professional looking Thai man and woman along with a Myanmar man came to the Kamthieng market area where we were waiting to be picked up,'' said Jusa. ''They said they came from an organisation called OrTorRor. They told us that we could all apply for a card that would allow us to work here legally and be able to travel anywhere legally.''
The Myanmar man told them that if they were arrested, they could call him at any time for help.
Most of Jusa's friends don't have work permits and paid 3,000 baht for the card. However, he was unsure what the card was and sought advice from a social worker who warned against applying for it.
A week later, many of his friends were arrested for working illegally in a sweep by immigration police. ''They called the Myanmar man on the number he gave us, but none of them could reach him.''
Jusa added that one of his relatives paid 16,000 baht for world citizenship cards for himself and his wife. The pair had Thai ID cards with ''0'' as the first digit, which identifies them as stateless and allows them to work in a restricted area. However, stateless and hilltribe people must still apply for a work permit if they want to work elsewhere in Thailand.
Jusa, who has since applied for a legitimate work permit, said his relative was told the world citizenship card would allow him to work in any Asean country.
Sanu, 19, from the Akha tribe in the Mae Taeng district of Chiang Mai province, came to Muang district with her parents when she was a young girl, looking for a better life. None of the family has a permit to stay.
Sanu says when she turned 19 earlier this year she decided she should contribute to the family income and decided to apply for a waitressing job at a restaurant.
Similar to the others, she thought her prayers had been answered when a man and woman saying they were representatives of the Law Enforcement Investigation Organisation showed up at her Mae Taeng home in March.
''They came to sell a card that they called a 'rights protection card', certified by the United Nations,'' she said.
''After listening to them, I thought the card was a dream come true since it would allow me to travel anywhere in Thailand without needing official permission.''
Sanu said she, her brother-in-law and a neighbour paid 1,000 baht each for cards which were delivered the day after they provided two ID photos and the cash. She later learned from a social worker that the card was worthless. She was also told that many others had also been duped. Luckily she has never tried to use the card.
''I would like to pass on the message to those who are in a similar position to mine not to trust this organisation. The card seemed too good to be true and it was awfully cheap.''
JUST CALL ME PI
In the Chiang Mai office of the Law Enforcement Investigation Organisation, the man called Pi was visibly agitated.
An overweight man in his mid-fifties with thinning hair, he wasn't happy talking to Spectrum.
He said his organisation is a legitimate NGO, working to help stateless and hilltribe people, which has been maligned by incorrect reports in the media.
''I'm so upset by the Thai media outlet that came in and did the expose about us,'' he says. ''The type of work we are doing is not illegal. The way it was presented on the TV show wasn't true. We never issued anyone a card and told them they can use it to travel the world.''
Pi said the card issued by OrTorRor was a rights protection card. He added that there was no charge, but if the applicant could afford it, a donation was welcomed but not required.
''People who register for the card are considered our members,'' he said. ''If they have any legal questions or if they are in trouble and need legal consultation, we will provide all of our members with free advice.''
Pi said that all their work was legal and transparent, but he conceded that problems may have occurred in different districts of the province.
''We have more than 10 networks all over Chiang Mai province,'' he said. ''Each network is led by a community leader. We have both Thai and hilltribe people as the leaders of each network in different districts. These people might be the ones who tricked people into buying the card.
''If we are really running an illegal business, how do you think we can operate out of a big office on the main street of Chiang Mai like this? My point is we are legal and we have nothing to hide.''
Pi said he was hopeful the issue would eventually die down, but added a final statement. ''I want you to remember one thing, I have a lot of connections and good back up,'' he said. ''If we think we are being attacked too much, we may attack back some day.''
OrTorRor has also been trying to expand its networks to Chiang Rai, where a former member of the organisation, Lahu hilltribe man Weep (not his real name), experienced at firsthand the kickbacks and commissions associated with the card.
Weep says he had a proper career before he learned about the Law Enforcement Investigation Organisation and decided he wanted to join to help hilltribe and stateless people. He says one of the headmen from his village told him the organisation wanted to form a committee to represent it in Chiang Rai.
On April 14, he applied to become a committee member.
''I was surprised to discover I was the only one who applied for the position,'' he said. ''I had to pay them 3,000 baht and I received the certificate and a committee card back on April 16.''
Weep said a man claiming to be the head of the Chiang Mai organisation told him he needed to find another 20 committee members so he could establish his own office in Chiang Rai.
Weep said after he became a committee member his first assignment was to sell the special privilege cards to poor people.
''Besides having to find 20 committee members to join the organisation, I was also assigned to sell two types of cards to people who had no ID cards. The cards I was assigned to sell were the world citizen card and the rights protection card.''
The world citizen card cost 7,000 baht and the rights protection card cost 1,500 baht. ''I persuaded 40 to 50 people from each village to buy the cards,'' he said. ''Most of them bought the world citizen card.''
Weep says the world citizen card became popular and the price increased from 7,000 baht to 9,000 baht. Despite the price hike demand remained high.
A world citizen VIP card _ranging in price from 12,000 to 30,000 baht with ''lifetime privileges'' _ was also introduced. Weep said he became more motivated as a salesman when he was told he could keep 3,000 baht commission from each sale. He estimates he sold the card to more than 500 people.
''I realised later that the cards I sold weren't real,'' he said. ''So I resigned as a committee member and refused to have anything more to do with the organisation.''
Spectrum showed Weep a photo of Pi and he identified him as the head of the organisation from Chiang Mai.
''Sometimes the man from Chiang Mai came up here to sell the cards himself,'' he said. ''He usually came with blank cards. Once someone applied for the card and gave him the money, he wrote down all the information on the card and give it to the buyer.''
The Chiang Mai office of the organisation falls under the jurisdiction of the Mae Ping police station. Pol Maj Chalermpol Gaewongwan, an investigator at the station, said he wasn't aware of any problems regarding the organisation in Chiang Mai.
''Normally, if there is no report from a victim, we can't really do anything about it,'' he said.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
So what exactly is the Law Enforcement Investigation Organisation, and is it a recognised NGO?
Songwit Cheamsakul from the Social Development and Human Security Ministry, who is in charge of Ethnic Affairs, said he had run a check on the organisation in Chiang Mai and could provide no information on it.
''I'm not aware of the establishment of this organisation,'' Mr Songwit said. ''That means they have never registered with us. But from the type of work they do, I think what they do is not right. They have no right to trick money from people in that way.''
He suggested bringing the allegations to the attention of the police or raising them with the provincial governor.
Mr Songwit added that NGOs are non-profit organisations which usually raise funds elsewhere to finance their aid work. He said even though NGOs are not required to pay tax, they are required to register with the government in order to gain approval to run their organisation.
When NGOs register, they have to specify what type of organisation they want to run. If they want to run as a foundation, they must register with the Interior Ministry. But if the organisation wants to run as an association, they have to register with the Social Development and Human Security Ministry.
The Law Enforcement Investigation Organisation in Chiang Mai shares an almost identical name with the Law Enforcement Investigation Organisation (People Sector) in Bangkok. Boonyong Jansaeng, director of the law department at the Bangkok office denied any involvement with the Chiang Mai outfit and said his organisation was a respected operation established in July, 2002, by Dr Anan Buranavanich.
''We saw the expose of the organisation with a similar name in Chiang Mai on TV,'' Mr Boonyong said. ''I must admit I was quite shocked when I found out about it. They used Dr Anan's name, as well as our organisation's name to operate a scam.''
Mr Boonyong said he ran a check on the man allegedly running the Chiang Mai organisation and found no record of him. ''We have some members who are legally registered with us there, but he is not one of them,'' he said. ''The office they set up near the Chiang Mai bus station has nothing to do with us. They are not authorised to operate an office under our name.''
Mr Boonyong said his organisation did have a rights protection card as well as a world citizen card, but the purpose of the real cards was vastly different to the fakes being sold.
''We are helping people who are in need,'' he said. ''The cards that we issue for stateless people are for them to be able to request help from us as a member of our organisation.
''In the past, we have helped stateless people obtain citizenship. We submit the requests to the Ministry of Interior for Thai citizenship for these people.
''We never request any money from anyone who we offer help to. They are welcome to give us a donation, and the money donated will be spent on all activities the organisation undertakes,'' he said.
Mr Boonyong said the legitimate Law Enforcement Investigation Organisation (People Sector) operates as an NGO and has more than 200,000 members throughout Thailand.
He said the organisation was run as an NGO and they were in the process of registering it with the National Human Right Commission (NHRC).
But the NHRC ran a check and told Spectrum it had no record of the organisation being registered or any application for registration being made.
Mr Boonyong also said he had made a report to the public security officer in Chiang Mai after he had received full details of the office there. He added he believed the problem had been taken care of.
An officer from the Thai office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that they had no involvement with the activities of the Law Enforcement Investigation Organisation.
SOLVING THE PROBLEMSomchart Pipattaradol, who heads the stateless people's rights protection section at the Mirror Foundation's Chiang Rai office, said that the scammer who devised the scheme is very smart, and may have the backing of powerful people.
''A con artist who can fool thousands of people like this is not normal,'' he said. ''First of all, I think they are very smart to target stateless people at their most vulnerable. They know what these people are scared of and how much they can get away with.
''My second point is they must have someone really powerful backing them, otherwise they would not be so bold in scamming this many people. Another reason I believe they have powerful backers is because they operate their office in a busy public place in the heart of Chiang Mai. It seems they have no fear of getting caught.''
Mr Somchart believes the best way to solve the problem is to change the government's approach to stateless and hilltribe people.
''One of the most important issues that should not be overlooked is that government policy for the management of stateless people is very poor and has not progressed at all.
''In 2005, the Office of the National Security Council [NSC] devised a policy to solve the problem of stateless people. They divided stateless people into different groups, so that it was easy for them to solve the problems of one group at a time.
''Then they went around many villages to record people's names and status. If anyone was found to be stateless, they were issued an ID card with zero as the first digit.
''They continued their work until 2010. Then the NSC stopped working on the problem because they said there would be a new policy introduced that they believed would be more effective. But there are still many stateless people waiting to be registered under the old policy, and since then, nothing has been done.
''That's why people with stateless status fall prey to the scam, as the government has no proper scheme in place to help them. If anything that looks good comes along, they grab it while it's available. Stateless people should not be the ones who suffer from the inaction of the Thai government.''