When asked why they were going to Thailand, they were told to say “Just to enjoy,” explained another patron at the New Madras Café, which doubles as a hostel for recent Tamil arrivals and is located just two blocks north of the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, the centre of spiritual life in Bangkok for the predominantly Hindu Tamils. “But they came because they were going to Canada.”
Though the café was almost deserted, the middle-aged man was nervous as he spoke, looking over his shoulder and eventually resorting to writing his answers down on paper so they couldn’t be overheard.
Official Thai documents show that on May 1, authorities sent out a bulletin that 120 Tamils had been spotted travelling from Bangkok to Songkhla in a caravan of two buses and two vans. They were last spotted in the fishing hamlet of Ban Lae, on the outskirts of Songkhla.
“There were four Sri Lankans or Indians who came here in May. They walked around the village and talked amongst themselves, and then two of them came back the next day with two other Sri Lankan people. It was like they were surveying,” said Dollosh Suksuwan, a 30-year-old unemployed oil worker who lives in Ban Lae.
While others in the hamlet denied having seen any foreigners recently, Mr. Dollosh said Ban Lae was perfect for those who wanted to sneak illicit cargo out to sea. “After dark, after 10 p.m., no one will ask what you are doing.”
Thai authorities believe that the people smugglers used Ban Lae and other fishing villages to ferry their human cargo out to the Sun Sea in small groups. “They could do it anywhere off the coast of Thailand. Thailand has a lot of fishing boats,” a Thai navy source said.
Only one Bangkok Tamil, a man known locally as Anton, is known to be among those who left. After years of living in Thailand with official UNHCR refugee status while his wife and family remained behind in Sri Lanka, Anton told friends in April his family was coming to Thailand to join him. Anton and his family disappeared from Bangkok shortly before the Sun Sea disappeared from Songkhla.
Asked how Anton, an ostensible refugee, could afford to bring his family to Canada at the reported $40,000 to $50,000 per place on the Sun Sea, the nervous café patron went silent again. After a pause, he again wrote on a piece of paper: “He was LTTE,” as in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tamil Tigers.
The front man
The new owner of the ship didn’t live like a man who owned his own business, nor one who was shopping for a 57-metre boat. The 30-year-old lived a Spartan existence in Thailand, paying just $80 month to rent an apartment in a poor neighbourhood of west Bangkok.
Thai documents show he flew into Bangkok from Colombo in April, 2008, on a tourist visa. At some point later that year he left Thailand, returning in October on a business visa overland from Malaysia, which the Sri Lankan embassy in Bangkok says has long been used by the Tamil Tigers as a fundraising and money-laundering centre. He and three Thai partners registered Sun & Rshiya Co. Ltd. as a “fruits, vegetables and clothing” company in November, 2008, declaring assets of two-million baht (about $65,000). The man, who owned the largest block of shares in the new firm, listed his occupation as “merchant.”
After registering, Sun & Rshiya never filed another paper, missing the annual deadline to file its mandatory statement for 2009. Then it bought the Harin Panich 19.
The building manager at his last listed address says he was one of a group of Sri Lankans and Indians who lived in the building before the landlord grew tired of the constant visits by police and stopped allowing foreigners to rent.
According to his passport, the man was born April 13, 1980, in Jaffna, the Tamil cultural capital in northern Sri Lanka. He was in Thailand on a valid work permit attached to his role as the head of Sun & Rshiya.