Undercover Brothers

 |  February 3, 2014

As an undercover policeman, Police Lieutenant Colonel Apichart Hattasin rarely wears a uniform. His style is casual and his manner approachable, more like that of a friendly local bartender than a cop, and not at all what I expected for the head of the Transnational Crime and Child and Woman Protection Unit of the Royal Thai Police Region 5. When I meet him at the soccer field, he’s wearing a baggy knit cap, t-shirt and jeans, and it takes me nearly 10 minutes of chatting with him to realise who he actually is. He isn’t undercover today, though. Today, he is simply a big brother.

Big Brother Project Thailand is a unique joint initiative between the police, the Chiang Mai Office of Social Development and Human Security and HUG Project Thailand, a local faith-based initiative to protect vulnerable children from violence, exploitation and abuse. Founded one year ago by Pol. Lt. Col. Apichart and HUG Director Boom (full name withheld), a certified child psychologist according to Criminal Code Procedural Law, the project provides fun activities, job training, education and emotional support for two dozen kids and counting.

Despite its Orwellian connotations, the Big Brother Project’s name is derived from the Thai word pi yai, which Boom says, “can be sisters, brothers, friends, role models and inspirations.” Here, no child is ever forced to do (or not do) anything. They are merely given love, support and opportunities to help themselves.

“It all started with one case I was working on involving a street kid who was a victim of trafficking and sexual exploitation by a foreigner,” says Pol. Lt. Col. Apichart. “He was so alone. I realised that when it comes to street kids, no one is likely to take care of them. One hundred percent of them come from broken families, and most are neglected. So I said, well, if no one is taking care then we will do it!”

Although there is no shortage of NGOs working to care for at-risk youth in Chiang Mai, there is quite often an acute lack of resources. Many organisations fall flat on funding, government support, or the degree of steadfast commitment required to really help in the long term. The Big Brother Project is different in that it is run by the very people with the knowledge and the power to initiate real change.

“I’m an expert on crime, how to get the bad guys in jail,” says Pol. Lt. Col. Apichart. “Boom is a child psychologist and social worker. Together we make a great team, because we can address both sides of the issue. Demand and supply. We want to stop crimes from happening. We want to grab the kids out of the cycle.”

Of course, this is no easy task. Boom notes that many of the children are addicted to drugs and living on the street. “When children come from this kind of background, they often have behavioural problems and anger issues. Some people have a beautiful picture of rescue, when in reality, you’re working with rebels, with children who are scared to receive love from you.”

The soccer games, guitar lessons and trips to Flight of the Gibbon help because they create a casual environment in which the kids can have fun, let their guards down and just enjoy being kids. Moreover, the environment is ripe for developing healthy bonds, not only with the volunteers and counsellors like Boom, but with the police. Today, Big Brother receives a small budget from the Human Security and Social Welfare Department and has 10 full time volunteers and five police volunteers recruited from Pol. Lt. Col. Apichart’s unit. The police teach lessons, play games, and even pick up the kids from school.

“Most street kids are scared of the police because of their stateless status,” says the lieutenant. “But as we spend time having fun, they learn to trust us, and eventually some of them will tell us about the bad things that happened to them. The statute of limitations for these types of crimes lasts 20 years, so if  they share traumatic stories from their past, we can still build a case.” But, he adds, “we don’t ever ask them directly and we never put any pressure on them. They know we are police. Once they understand that what’s happening to them is wrong, they will come to us.”

In this way, the project has created an unprecedented opportunity to repair and strengthen the tenuous relationship between vulnerable children and law enforcement, so that the police may protect rather than punish, help rather than harm.

“When children are trafficked, they make money from their traffickers, and therefore may see them as an ally, and the police as an enemy,” explains Boom. “They’re afraid of getting arrested or put in a government shelter, of getting sent back to their parents or to Burma to start the whole cycle over again because there are no other options.”

Take, for example, the young flower sellers, an all-too-visible faction for anyone who has spent an evening in Chiang Mai. Currently, the issue is in the hands of the Social Welfare Department. It’s their job to patrol the streets and arrest parents who are allowing their children to illegally sell flowers. And ostensibly, this method is working. The number of children on the street has decreased since last year. However, says Pol. Lt. Col. Apichart, “this kind of suppression works short term but not long term. Moreover, by enforcing the law and putting the parent in jail, are you not creating a new problem? Now the kids have no parents, plus they feel bad for getting their parents sent to jail. So, sometimes enforcing the law is not the answer.”

But what is the answer?

“My plan is to prosecute the big guys,” he says. “In many cases, the kids aren’t selling for their actual family. Often they don’t even know who their real family is anymore. So I’m recruiting forensic scientists from Bangkok to come work with me to collect DNA so we can prove who their families really are (or aren’t). And if they’re not the parents, they’re in trouble! Then it’s gonna be a long story, starting with, where did you get the kids from?”

For Thailand, this kind of progressive, big picture problem-solving could be a game changer. As of now, Thailand is known worldwide for being a place where sex offenders can get away with anything. But if initiatives like Big Brother are successful – and then replicated – they could help fill in the cracks of an all-too-fragmented system.

“As police, we have a small budget and we cannot fix everything,” admits Pol. Lt. Col. Apichart. “We are not Superman. But I’ve been doing this job for seven years, and I can say that the rights of children are being recognised more now than in the past, and the international community really cares about children’s welfare. Things are getting better and better. The way we deal with criminals is better as well. We’re not 100 percent successful, cases have failed, but we learn from them. It’s not just about making an arrest and getting stats up. It’s about reaching the court level and making a conviction.”

Indeed, one of the most crucial aspects of fighting trafficking is making a case strong enough to stand up in court, which is not easy. “Human trafficking is not like drug trafficking where evidence is easy to obtain,” notes Boom. “With human trafficking, the victim is the primary evidence. And the victim is volatile. If they aren’t willing to testify, the case collapses.”

This is why initiatives like the Big Brother Project are crucial, because they bridge the gap between victims and those that can help. “The main thing is building trust,” she adds. “That’s what we do with Big Brother. And we try to show the kids that when they testify they don’t just get the bad guy, but they get to be a hero! They get to save other kids.”

One of Big Brother’s biggest success stories so far is that of a 15-year-old girl they call “Mint” (a pseudonym). Growing up with an neglectful, alcoholic father, Mint dropped out of school as a young teenager. She spent her nights in bars and earned money by serving drinks and dancing. Before long, a friend told her she could earn more money by selling her body for sex, and being young and naïve, Mint fell for a trafficker’s promises of an impressive salary and comfortable lifestyle. By the time she realised it was all a sham, she was trapped. Eventually, a friend contacted the police on her behalf, but even as Mint agreed to work with the police, she continued to live at home and be trafficked.

It was then that Mint came into contact with Big Brother. She was given a safe place to live and enrolled in school. Of course, her previous lifestyle made it difficult for her to accept her new life. Boom says that Mint relapsed, snuck out of the house and returned to sex work five times in three months.

“But relapse is part of the process of recovery,” adds Boom. “Now, Mint goes to school by her own choice, lives back at home with her family, gets good grades and is a cheerleader.”

Best of all, Mint will testify against her trafficker along with another victim in court this month.

The Big Brother Project has received quite a bit of recognition for its growing success, and its unique model. Boom was recently nominated for the annual U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award, which honours “women around the globe who have exemplified exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for human rights, women’s equality, and social progress, often at great personal risk.” The winners, who will be announced later this month, will meet with First Lady Michelle Obama in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Pol. Lt. Col. Apichart has been invited to speak about his child protection work at a number of international conferences around the world, presenting to the global community the unique level of direct involvement he maintains in each case. “All the others do prevention online now, and here I am, present on the ground, dealing directly with the children and the bad guys, fighting to break the cycle,” he laughs. “They were all shocked!”

Despite their personal successes, both Boom and the lieutenant are quick to point out that they couldn’t have gotten to where they are today without their dedicated team of full-time Big Brother volunteers, such as Mike and Nicole, a young couple from Arizona who are now halfway through a two-year commitment to the project. Sponsored by their church, family and friends in America, the young couple moved to Chiang Mai around the time Big Brother began, and soon opened up their rented home to those in need of transitional housing, providing a short-term but familial level of care for kids with nowhere else to go. This month, their home will also accommodate the first Big Brother School, which will employ government-certified teachers and provide an education for children who do not yet feel comfortable attending regular schools (in some cases because they were abused by former teachers).

What’s clear is that for both its founders and its volunteers, Big Brother Project is a labour of love. “We have a chance to bring childhood back to these children,” adds Pol. Lt. Col. Apichart. “That’s what keeps me going.”

On Valentine’s Day, the team will pile into trucks and head up into the mountains to distribute blankets, toys and other supplies to impoverished hill tribe villagers. “The kids are coming too,” says Pol. Lt. Col. Apichart, “so they can feel what it’s like to give to others who are poorer than them. I want them to feel the same thing I feel. Love is more than just a story between two people. It’s something you can share with everyone.”