They all have identical stories: the yearning for a better life, the need to send money home to families back home, a tempting trip that seemed too good to be true, an oily middleman who promised everything but dumped them in Bangkok. Then: getting caught at airport customs, the trial, sentencing and years of incarceration at one of Thailand's prisons for drug traffickers.
They are all Nepalis. Take Chandra and Jivan who paid a Nepali employment agency Rs 75,000 each for a job in South Korea nine years ago. The agent abandoned them in Bangkok, where they were framed and were caught in a police drug dragnet.
Nearly two years after that story came out, Chandra and Jivan are still serving life sentences at Bangkwang Central Prison. More Nepalis have been caught since, and there are now 20 other Nepalis there, including several women. Among them is one who used to be married to a German. He got rid of her by framing her in a drug scam, and ran off with a Thai woman.
Conditions are bad: meals of what Thais call "dog rice" (low grade rice that smells) fish gruel, contaminated water, and stuffy cells where the temperature is always above 35 degrees. Everything has to be bought from the prison authorities: soap, clothing, water. Inmates say drugs and sex are also available: "If you can pay, you can buy."
Basic necessities can be bought for about $20 a month, and nationals of other countries like the United States, Britain and Australia are taken care of by their embassies. But the Royal Nepal Embassy in Bangkok doesn't have much time for jail visits, let alone providing the money for them to subsist.
Nepali inmates therefore survive by doing laundry for better off prisoners. Or, they survive on Christian charity groups which means they have to convert and profess their devotion to Jesus Christ. And then there are volunteer activists like Bangkok-based Sue Aldous, Sue Ridley and Ben Parks who help prisoners with money, clothes and food-no strings attached. But most of all, the campaigners give the inmates a window to the outside world, and a channel of communications to their families back home.
Parks is a retired computer consultant who made his money in the dot.com boom, and has decided to devote his life to helping prison inmates from Nepal. He fell in love with Nepal during a trek, and has visited many times. Once on a trek he saw a sign that said: "Don't change Nepal, let Nepal change you." That became his motto, and he says ruefully: "That did it for me, now I am trapped."
Parks is in touch by mail with some of the inmates, and visited the Nepalis recently in Bangkwang. The prisoners are behind two wire-mesh fences separated by ten feet, and they have to shout at each other to be heard.
Parks was in Kathmandu this month to meet families of Bangkwang prisoners in Nepal. "During my visits, some of them wanted me to go to Nepal and see their families and tell them they were all right and not to worry," says Parks. But others do not, because they say: "If they find out I am in prison, it will kill them."
The prisoners' needs are relatively simple short-term ones like: all Nepalis being allowed to share cells so they don't have to live with hardcore Thai criminals, being allowed to send and receive mail more regularly, and a little pocket money for soap or postage stamps.
And then there are the more serious demands, like being included in the list of royal pardons by the King of Thailand, or asking for more attention from the Royal Nepal Embassy in Bangkok, or lobbying with the government in Kathmandu to sign an extradition treaty with Thailand. Activists feel that if the Nepal government or the embassy in Bangkok took slightly more interest, there is enough goodwill for some of the Nepalis to get on the Thai king's pardon list.
The Thai authorities don't seem to want to keep the Nepalis either and have been trying to work out ways to send them back. A draft proposal for extradition was sent to the Foreign Ministry in 2000. No one in the ministry we spoke to had any knowledge of what happened to the proposal. Ministry spokesman Gyan Chandra Acharya has a faint recollection that there were some differences between the two sides
on repatriation procedures, but doesn't remember what they were specifically.
At the National Human Rights Commission, it is clear to member Kapil Shrestha that repatriation of Nepali prisoners in foreign jails is low on the government's priority list. "The government does not feel any obligation towards its citizens in foreign jails. Their failure to see jails as correction homes rather than punishment is reflected in their inability to bring Nepalis back," he told us.
The government does not even know how many Nepalis there are in foreign jails. Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a circular to all Nepali embassies to send their tallies of inmates, but there is no total yet. One-year-old data at the ministry shows that there were 54 Nepalis in three Thai jails. Another figure shows that 104 Nepalis were arrested on narcotic trafficking offences at international airports since 1999 alone, 40 of them were in Bangkok.
Jivan Thapa's brother Sanad has been given the run around by various ministries in Kathmandu in his effort to bring his brother back. In fact, he suspects the government is trying to make an example of the prisoners in Thailand so others are dissuaded from going abroad.
epali embassies and consulate offices are no help. Deputy Chief of Protocol Y N Paudel who has recently returned from the embassy in Pakistan says there are Nepalis there who have already completed their jail terms, but they still can't return because their families don't have the money for the ticket. And the embassy itself doesn't have a budget line for repatriation airfares.
NEPALIS IN BANGKOK JAILS