Monday, July 10, 2006

Can't Find My Way Home
What follows is a (lengthy) piece that I wrote last week about a Thai guy who has been trapped in Hong Kong since 1999. He's no angel as the story points out, but surely doesn't deserve to be in the limbo he's in.

Imagine having a home and no way back. And no way to prove that it's your home or to even prove your identity. Then imagine that you never saw a traffic light, stop sign, elevator or skyscraper until you were 29-years old. Todd Salimuchai is such a man.
He is stateless; literally a man without a country who has been in diplomatic limbo in Hong Kong since 1999 when he made the biggest mistake of his life at the behest of his northern Thailand tribal village elders.
Salimuchai freeely admits he came to Hong Kong as a would-be drug enforcer. Born a Lisu hill tribesman in an ill-defined border area of the Golden Triangle between Thailand and Burma, Salimuchai's village -- a place of 200 farmers he calls ``Hazen'' and a locale not found on any known maps-- raised poppies for the opium trade.
As he told the story, once a year for many years a Hong Kong drug lord would come to Hazen to buy poppy seeds and pay in cash. But in 1999, Salimuchai said the man brought a check for US$800,000. The villagers were suspicious, Salimuchai said, but were assured ``any bank'' would cash it. They reluctantly took him at his word.``Check was no good,'' he said.
Salimuchai speaks broken English and some Cantonese and Mandarin; the former he said he learned from American drifters and ``GIs'' as a child and the Chinese from his years in Hong Kong, some of which have been spent in prison.Salimuchai, whose parents are dead but has two older brothers in Thailand, said he and an unnamed accmplice were dispatched to Hong Kong, smuggled as stowaways aboard a boat in March 1999 with instructions to find the drug lord and get the money.
It was a fool's mission. ``Stupid,'' Salimuchai said. ``Very stupid. I wish I never come.''
Upon arrival they may as well have landed on another planet. With no idea of how to find the man who'd stiffed them and in a place where they didn't speak the language or even comprehend elevators or traffic signals, Salimuchai said the pair were taken to a safe house in Wan Chai.
For almost three months they searched unsuccessfully for the drug lord. But in June 1999 Salimuchai was arrested in an ID check in Wan Chai and shortly thereafter jailed for almost a year. Beginning in March 2000, Salimuchai claimed he also spent 40 days in two Shenzhen jails after Hong Kong immigration authorities put him on a bus with mainland offenders.
``I don't know why,'' he said. ``They say I look Chinese.'' But initially he was elated, he said.``(Police) say, `Todd, you go home!' I'm so happy when they put me on a bus, but then I see different uniforms and I say, `Where am I?'''
The answer was ``China.''
Salimuchai said he was beaten, questioned and stunned with an ``electric gun'' during his 40 days in Shenzhen. ``They touch my tongue, my feet, my `here' with electric gun,'' he said pointing to his crotch. ``I want to die.''
As with all questions directed to the Hong Kong immigration department regarding details of Salimuchai's case, a spokesperson replied: ``We do not comment on individual cases It is our policy to remove illegal immigrants to their place of domicile as soon as practicable.
``It is the illegal immigrant's own duty to provide the full and true information about his identity and nationality such that removal arrangement can be expedited.''
Upon his release in May 2000, Salimuchi said he was at his lowest point. His friend had disappeared but had left HK$2,000 for him at their safe house. It lasted less than three months. ``I don't have any friend, I don't have any money for food, I don't have passport. I just want to go home. No one will help me.''
That's when he made the second worst mistake of his life and after obtaining a replica pistol, Todd Salimuchai gained the dubious honor of being the first and only person to attempt a hijacking at Hong Kong International airport.
In those pre-9/11 days, it was easier.
``I know how to use a map real well,'' he said. So on July 31, 2000 he went to the airport and studied a public wall map from which he figured out a way to sneak into the cargo handling area. Shortly after 10pm made his way into the airport's cargo handling area with the ``gun.'' When security guards spotted him, he pointed the fake pistol at them and grabbed a woman cleaner. He then forced his way onto an empty Cathay Pacific Boeing 747 with his hostage.
According to news reports at the time, Salimuchai -- who was then identified as ``Burmese'' -- held police off for 21/2 hours before he surrendered.
His original plan had been even more desperate. He said he had learned to pilot small, one seater helicopters in Thailand and hoped to find a helicoptor to chopper himself home.``I see helicoptors but they are too big and too far. I don't have time. So many policemen! The lady [hostage] is screaming and crying. I say, `Don't worry. I won't hurt you. I just want to go home!'''
Salimuchai pleaded guilty to false imprisonment and using a fake firearm with intent to commit an offense. He was sentenced to five years in prison in February 2001 and released in December 2004.
He's repentant and sincere sounding when describing the hijack attempt and his past as a poppy farmer.``Stupid! Very stupid,'' Salimuchai said of the hijack. ``I am so sorry. Yes, I was a poppy farmer like many hilltribes. But in prison I look around and see much more men than myself serving long sentences for drugs. I couldn't help feel guilty that I have in maybe contributed to their problem.
``No, I am not proud of who I was,'' he said ``I am not a drug user, never have used drugs and if I can help it I'll never grow poppies again. I will tell my villagers give up growing poppies and start a new life. ``I will tell them what's outside the world. It's not opium that pays for clothes, medicine and food.''
His daily routine since has been calmer, if no less frustrating. Though Salimuchai now has documents provided by the immigration department attesting to his identity and must register weekly with them, he is prohibited from working and lives a generally numbing daily existence courtesy of charity provided by a guarantor, local NGOs and a high level government official who prefers to remain anonymous.`
`I wish to work to support myself while I await repatriation to my home village or another country ... and am prepared to accept any conditions or limitations on the nature and type of work that I do,'' he said in a November 2005 petition (as yet unanswered) to Chief Executive Donald Tsang that was prepared with the aid of a supporter.
In a handwritten letter prepared for him by a fellow ex-prisoner shortly after his release from prison, his plea is less formal, if more painfully eloquent.``The immigration department not allowed me to work. This city is not my village. If I am hungry I am getting food from the mountains, or get fish from the Mekong River. Here anything needs pay.''
``His case is unique in my experience,'' said Tim Elwell-Sutton, an outreach worker for the Inner City Mission in Chung King Mansion where Salimuchai has spent much of his time since his release eating free meals, surfing the Internet for pictures of Lisu tribespeople and attending Christian services.
``He doesn't qualify as a refugeee because he's not in fear of going home,'' said Elwell-Sutton. ``The big problem in Todd's case is that no one officially wants to take responsibility for him.''
Indeed, in the petition to Tsang, Salimuchai wrote: ``To date, 17 countries have refused my entry ... I have been waiting a long time for repatriation and given the number of countries that have refused my admission, I excpect to have to wait for a lot longer. The Director of Immigration alleges that I have not been cooperative in telling him where I come from and what my identity is. I deny that; my problem is that I came here without documents and come from a very small village, which does not appear on usual maps.''
Salimuchai -- who said he has been interviewed at the Burmese, Thai and Vietnamese consulates in Hong Kong, but has no idea what the other 14 countries are that the immigration department claimed have refused him -- has another problem regarding his birthplace. Most of the estimated 550,000 Thai hilltribe people don't have birth certificates, which means they have no citizenship, no ID cards and no legal identity as Thai citizens.
``Right now, hilltribes are still regarded as non-people to (Thai) officialdom (and) bureaucracy,'' British Ambassador to Thailand David William Fall said recently in connection with a UNESCO project to gain citizenship for the country's ethnic minorities.
Language is another barrier. The only language Salimuchai speaks fluently is his Lisu dialect and, as human rights attorney Mark Daly, who is working with him, said: ``Who else speaks it in Hong Kong? No one that we know of.''
The Thai consulate in Hong Kong declined comment, though the newest human rights organization in town, Belgium-based Human Rights Without Frontiers, said it recently turned to Thailand in hopes of ending Salimuchai's stalemate.The group's director Willy Fautre hand delivered a plea on Salimuchai's behalf to the Thai foreign ninister on June 20, World Refugee Day at the Thai Mission at the European Union.
``His case is very complicated but we believe with the kind consideration from the Thai government, he could be allowed to return to his village in Thailand,'' said David Rose, of the group's Hong Kong office. ``Perhaps a temporary travel document could be issued in this case. It is not an option for Todd to remain in limbo forever in Hong Kong. He simply wishes to return home and he should be allowed to do so as soon as possible.''
Attorney Daly, who has been working with Salimuchai since the Hong Kong office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees rejected him due to his non-refugee status, said: ``Todd's been in limbo for a particularly long time and the government has had an equally long time to figure out a strategy for him. Currently we are looking at legal arguments to get him some form of regularization in Hong Kong, including the right to work.''
In his office Daly pulled out a copy of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights written in 1948 and pointed to articles 13 and 15.
``Article 13 says: `Everyone has the right to leave any country (including his own) and to return to his country.' Article 15 is simple, too. `Everyone has a right to a nationality.' That also includes Todd.''
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