Thailand’s Seafood Slavery

Burmese shrimp peelers, Thai fish processor.

Slave narratives are working-class literature in extremis.  They relate an existential struggle for possession of self and labour.  Failure to wrest control away from a master or to effect escape often means traumatic depression.  The slave narrative is predicated on the eventual success of that struggle.  Stripped to its essence, a slave narrative is a working-class fight to the death. 

When Frederick Douglass stood on the Maryland shore and looked out at the white sails of ships on the Chesapeake Bay, they represented hope for freedom.  One of those ships did eventually take him north out of slavery.  But in the American experience ships far more often brought people into slavery. 

Not only in America.  For Vannak Anan Prum, a Cambodian village farm-boy, ships came to represent slavery.  Vannak’s The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea (Seven Stories, 2018) relates a story of contemporary slavery on Thai fishing boats and a Malaysian plantation.  The book provides a powerful and intriguing voice from what has been called an ‘age of post-emancipation slavery.’

The graphic literature of slavery is slim, even more so for contemporary slave narratives produced as visual art.  Vannak’s artwork is his own and it comes from a talent that saved his life more than once.  It provides a depth of credibility that persuaded his wife who thought he had abandoned them when Vannak returned home after five years absence. 

Vannak’s story begins in a small Cambodian village in 1979 when Vietnam defeated the Khmer Rouge.  He was the second of eight children and the family lived in deep poverty.  The Khmer Rouge forced fourteen-year-old Vannak into uniform and battle where he watched other child-soldiers die.  This form of coerced labour, the informal conscription of children into armed service, was the first station in Vannak’s enslavement. 

After two years and the Khmer Rouge defeat, Vannak joined a Buddhist monastery to do penance, then became an art copyist and sculptor of figurines to sell to tourists.  While working as a migrant field hand, Vannak met and married Sokun, another field worker.  When she became pregnant, he accepted an offer from a middle-man to earn money drying fish in Thailand.  After an illegal border crossing, the middle-man sold Vannak and a friend into slavery in the Thai fishing fleet.

It is in the ship-board chapters that Vannak’s artwork works most powerfully towards capturing a sense of both camaraderie and despair among his fellow enslaved fishery workers.  Vannak employs strong primary colors – deep blue predominates – and well-planned frames that take readers through many sub-stories. 

Cruelty rules aboard these ships.  When an enslaved worker throws himself into the sea after despairing of his family, others rescue him and bring the man back to the deck.  The captain, however, seeing a useless worker, orders the man thrown back overboard and he disappears in the horizon to drown.  It is inevitable to draw historic parallels to the treatment of African slaves during the Middle Passage. 

Life becomes brutal and slaves abuse each other.  Vannak records a scene in which one Thai worker beheads his friend, probably due to a disagreement, and tosses the body into the sea at night.  Dead bodies from other boats appear regularly in their fishing nets.   

The Thai fishing fleet relies heavily on debt-bondage slavery.  As the UK’s Independent Antislavery Commissioner has reported recently, there exists a close interrelation between the heavy market demand for fish, the collapse of South Asian fishing stocks, and coerced labour within the Thai fishing fleet.  The men who sit on a deck sorting fish in Vannak’s paintings are not only at the bottom of a labour-capital chain, but they are part of a quickening environmental catastrophe. 

Doreen Boyd, one of the report’s co-authors, writesThe fishing industry in Thailand is a clear example of how climate change and modern slavery are connected. The demand for cheap seafood is leading to worsening abusive and exploitative conditions for fishing labourers, often in the form of debt bondage, as well as leading to further overfishing and ecosystem decline in fisheries, often as part of illegal and pirate fishing networks.”

Vannak worked for four years aboard ships in the company of a multi-national assembly of slaves from Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Thailand.  A ‘ladyboy’ who was the captain’s companion and servant becomes his close friend.  Vannak’s newly-acquired skills as a tattoo artist make him a valued member of the crew.  Art lends him a bulwark against depression and self-devaluation. 

As in many slave narratives, this state of forced servitude generates musings on his condition and the meaning of freedom.  In a telling passage, Vannak relates how he cared for an ill white sea-bird that landed on their ship.  He came to believe that their lives were intertwined.  So when the bird dies, Vannak develops suicidal ideation.  Having been at sea for years, Vannak imagines that he will escape only by drowning.    

When the boat makes an unusual approach to the Malaysian coast, Vannak and a comrade jump overboard at night and swim for shore atop homemade floats.  Unfortunately, once on land they find themselves re-enslaved and sold again by a senior police officer, underlining how corrupt government authority and traffickers can work hand-in-hand.  The palm oil plantation where they find themselves is almost as violent as the ships, with beatings and rape.  The narrative underlines a common denominator of enslavement: violence, either explicit or as implicit threat, provides a necessary element and guarantee for this mode of production. 

The story concludes with further violence, hospitalisation, months-long imprisonment, and eventual repatriation to Cambodia.  A foreign NGO that arranges Vannak’s repatriation discovers his artistic talent, asks that he draw his slave experience, and this book was born.  As a result, over the last half-dozen years Vannak has become an internationally-known antislavery figure and recipient of awards.

The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea is the accumulation of years of Vannak’s efforts to develop an idiomatic visual language that draws upon Cambodian aesthetic traditions, notably its figurative stone-carving and wat murals.  Vannak begins with drawings in the dust, then on paper given to him by a Vietnamese soldier, then in tattoos for fellow slaves, and now as a graphic narrative.  The routes to freedom and art overlapped. 

This drive towards freedom bears a telling parallel with the re-emergence of Cambodian arts after their near-complete obliteration under genocidal Khmer Rouge government. The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea is a story that illustrates how art underwrites freedom. In telling how freedom and art operate together work for mutual sustenance, Vannak tells a story that is larger than Thai fishing fleet slavery.  The artwork in this book needs contextualization within a global antislavery public art movement, one whose breadth the University of Nottingham Rights Lab and Zoe Trodd have documented. 

Cambodia remains a source country and transit destination for human trafficking.  Poverty continues to create opportunities for traffickers.  Vannak Anan Prum calls readers to witness and act against contemporary slavery. 

Photograph courtesy of ILO in Asia and the Pacific. Published under a Creative Commons license.