News/US: Thai toddler in US was human smugglers' prop, NATION

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Subject: News/US: Thai toddler in US was human smugglers' prop, NATION
From: Frans Mulschlegel (Mulschlegel_FJ@compuserve.com)
Date: Wed May 10 2000 - 08:57:51 EDT


           Thai toddler in US was human smugglers' prop, NATION

Associated Press.

    TABTIM Kaewtaengjan insists she loves her two-year-old son-who has
turned up in the United States as a prop in a human smuggling scheme-and
says she wants him back.
       Standing between them is an army of sceptics here and in the US who
find it hard to believe the Thai mother unknowingly let a suspected
Indonesian gangster take her boy out of the country to pose as the son of
fake parents.
       The sceptics were supported yesterday by the boy's grandmother,
Tabtim's former mother-in-law, who claims Tabtim recently told her the
child had been sold for Bt10,000, and by a US source who said the boy may
have been brought to the US as a pawn before.
       Tabtim said she thought her son, Phanupong, was sightseeing with a
friend, and denied selling him or knowing anything about a human smuggling
ring.
       "I swear I knew nothing about the smuggling scam," she told The
Nation in an interview in Bangkok yesterday. "I was shocked on knowing that
my boy was in the United States."
       It's a situation Thai community leaders in the US are referring to as
their own "Elian" case, because of similarities to the custody fight
between the father of Cuban castaway Elian Gonzalez and the boy's Miami
relatives.
       Thai community leaders in Los Angeles yesterday were trying to stop
today's possible deportation of Phanupong. They believe Tabtim either sold
her child or "rented" him to the smuggling racketeers, and fear she might
do it again if the boy is returned to her.
       The case began unfolding on April 11, when Phanupong flew into Los
Angeles under a false name with a man and woman who pretended to be his
parents.
       "We found out that the passports were fraudulent. They weren't the
kid's parents at all, nor the guardians, nor the caretakers," said Leonard
Kovensky, assistant director of detention and deportation for the Los
Angeles district of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. "They were
using the kid as a decoy."
       The INS asked the US Attorney's Office to file charges against the
couple but it declined, INS spokesman Rico Cabrera said. The man, Suseno
Karjorpanoto, and a Chinese woman were deported, but the boy was kept in
the United States while the Thai Consulate tried to determine his identity.
       Officials eventually contacted Tabtim, who faxed documents and a
photograph to prove her and her son's identity.
       Tabtim said that was the first indication she had her son had left
the country. She had come to trust Suseno after getting to know him at
work, she said, and he often took care of the boy, sometimes for as long as
a week. She said she let Suseno take care of Phanupong because she is
plagued with asthma.
       "He and his friends often came to the place where I worked and bought
a lot of toys for my son," she said. "I just want people who doubt me to
know that I knew nothing about all this."
       But Sumalee, the boy's grandmother, told The Nation in a separate
interview Tabtim admitted to her recently the child had been sold for
Bt10,000.
       "I hadn't seen him for some time so I asked her. She admitted she
sold him," she said. "I don't believe what she said today and I may bring
charges against her."
       Pol Col Visanu Muangpraesri, a Thai immigration police chief, said
yesterday Suseno was believed to be a member of a gang which smuggles
Chinese into the United States.
       "One of their tactics was to bring a little kid, who had either been
stolen or bought from his or her parents," he said. "The presence of a
daughter or son will make a group look like a family on vacation."
       Visanu would not speculate on whether Tabtim had collaborated with
the gang, but he promised an investigation.
       The boy had been scheduled to be flown to Bangkok today, but "no
final decision has been made yet whether to proceed with the child's
return", INS spokesman Cabrera said yesterday.
       A local Thai group taking care of the toddler wanted to delay his
deportation to allow an investigation, and was considering seeking
political asylum for the boy.
       "We're concerned with the boy's welfare and we feel that his safety
is in question if he were to be returned," said Hae Jung Cho, project
director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.
       Phanupong, who will turn three next month, was staying with a staff
member of the non-profit Thai Community Development Centre, a member of the
Anti-Slavery Coalition.
       The centre is concerned the boy may have been used as a human prop by
"a criminal group that is trafficking women, one by one, into this
country," according to an April 27 letter to Thomas J. Schiltgen, director
of the Los Angeles INS district.
       A Thai official said because the boy, whose real father has passed
away, is a Thai citizen, "our duty is to bring the child back to Thailand".
Child welfare and law enforcement agents here could investigate and
determine whether he should remain with his mother.
       According to a US source, the INS has informed the Thai consul in LA
Phanupong may have entered the US at least once before under the name
Somsak Deema.
       Phanupong was said to have suffered from eardrum infection, but has
recovered.

NATION


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