One of the leading figures in the counter-trafficking movement in Northern Thailand, Boom Bean is the founder and Director of The HUG Project (and its offshoot, the ACT Center), which is a multidisciplinary team involved in the protection of victims and investigation of cases of abused and sexually exploited children. She collaborates with Police Lt. Col. Apichart Hattasin of the northern Thai division of the Royal Thai Police, who is devoted to investigating, arresting, and prosecuting traffickers and other perpetrators of violence against children. To date, the HUG Project/ACT Center has been involved in the rescue of approximately 40-60 children per year who have been sexually abused, trafficked, or otherwise exploited, and many other cases are currently under investigation. Boom Bean also helps train staff, volunteers, and members of other counter-trafficking organizations on raising awareness and on how to work with children who have been victims of abuse. She was nominated for the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award in January 2014, and she has been one of TEDx Chiang Mai’s speakers on human trafficking in Northern Thailand. We’re thrilled to speak with her about the phenomenal work she’s doing.
Khun Boom, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us about your experience and perspective. Can you tell us a little bit about what led you to where you are now?
I grew up with a single mother and never knew my father. I had grown up knowing about sexual abuse from someone very close to me and I was never sure how to respond to it, so I remained silent. At university, I studied English Literature and, as part of the major, I read various books based on true stories of children being abused. I enjoyed working with children, so I initially chose a career in teaching language (Thai and English) to children and university students. Many of these students would often come to me and tell me their stories of abuse.
In 2011, I began researching, reading, attending trainings, and doing volunteer work on the abuse of children. It was during this time that I became aware of the issue of human trafficking. I felt called to be more involved in counter human trafficking efforts, so I decided to start a non-profit organization focusing on counter human trafficking. A few months later, the HUG Project was founded, HUG being the northern Thai word for love.
When I first started the HUG Project, it was with the intention of creating prevention mechanisms for children and staff through trainings and awareness activities. Throughout the trainings, I regularly heard children and adults share stories of abuse. Consequently, my team started to focus more on the protection and intervention side of human trafficking — the investigation and prosecution of traffickers and or perpetrators. Much of the investigation was done myself, with support from my team. At the beginning of 2013, the police on the team arrested a foreign pedophile who had been preying on street children. Following the arrest, Police Lt. Col. Apichart Hattasin and the HUG Project officially founded The Big Brother Project. Our goal was to protect, empower and restore children who have been exploited and abused, or who are at risk. The Big Brother Project (in collaboration with the ACT Center) works with children who may not be eligible for other programs due to the complexity of their specific issues.
Photo credit: US Embassy Chiang Mai
What are two or three of the biggest challenges you face?
One big challenge is putting a good case together to make sure that justice is served for victims. In Thailand, victims are the key witnesses, so you need very strong evidence, which can be difficult to collect, and you need victims who are willing and able to cooperate throughout the process.
The restoration time for victims of human trafficking and child abuse is also very challenging. They have been through an extremely traumatic experience, and may not understand that they are victims, and sometimes resist the process. It takes a lot of time, energy, patience, and dedication.
If you could change one thing to help end trafficking in Thailand, what do you think would be most effective?
I would like to see the educational system (schools) start reporting children who skip school, and I want to see authorities work together to prevent children from dropping out of school. Many of the victims that we work with dropped out of school at an early age. We need to come up with better and much more effective strategies and mechanisms to prevent children from dropping out of school and to keep them within the education system.
Please tell us about a case that stayed with you, affected you, or changed you in some way. What happened and how did it change you?
Every case will take something out of you. My very first case involved a young girl who dropped out of school in her early teens when her father’s life and money became consumed with alcohol. She began to go out late at night and started serving drinks and dancing at bars. Then a friend of hers told her she could make a lot more money selling her body for sex. She was connected with a “friend” who promised a certain salary if she worked for him, but as often happens, traffickers’ promises were not all they seemed to be. She earned far less than promised, but she had seen what could happen to her if she tried to leave, so leaving was not an option. It was at this point that I met her. The volunteers on our team opened our home to her and enrolled her in school.
This was the first time in her life that she encountered structure and boundaries, and she did not care for it. However, each time she ran away, we convinced her to come back. Each time she relapsed, we showed grace and forgiveness. She is now in school and doing well (and is one of SOLD’s scholarship students), and she is back at home with her father who now has a stable job. In the meantime, we continue our efforts to bring her traffickers to justice. But she still has a life-long road towards restoration. She has begun a life of healing, not only from the physical abuse, but she also seeks the kind of healing that can only be given by the grace of God.
This experience taught me that we can’t really change people, but we can motivate them to change themselves.
What are you most proud of?
I am always happy and proud to see children that I work with grow to become healthy, independent individuals, and to see them serve others!
If there were one thing you could tell foreigners before they come visit Thailand or before they try to get involved in supporting the anti-trafficking movement, what would you want them to know?
My encouragement would be that there is no single best method in fighting this crime. We must work together. What works in their home country may not work in Thailand. I want to encourage people to support the local people to help fight this crime in a way that is effective and sustainable.
**Note: The ACT Center is a recently launched pilot initiative to triangulate efforts between various governments (including the U.S.), NGOs, and local police officials to counter trafficking in the region. To find out more, read this article in Chiang Mai City Life Magazine.