CHIANGRAI TIMES – THE head of an Australian charity accused of faking the rescue of Thai hill-tribe children from sexual slavery has resigned. The former Australian army commando Sean McBride stepped down from the Grey Man charity at the weekend following new claims about the organization and an investigation into the children by Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation.
Mr McBride, who also uses the name John Curtis, saidthe Grey Man’s board decided he should step down because ”personal issues” between him and people in Thailand were interfering with the organization’s operations.
Funded by Australian donations, Grey Man promotes the use of former Australian soldiers and policemen in daring missions to rescue victims of sex trafficking in Asia.
Police in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai have cut ties with the charity amid claims and counter-claims about the organization, pending the outcome of the investigation.
In a new claim, Grey Man’s former head of investigations in Thailand said the charity’s website had exaggerated the success of its operations, including changing the ages of victims.
”Sean [McBride] told me younger girls are most interesting for donors,” said the Thailand-born man who asked that his name not be published because of his undercover work. The charity’s website often claimed that victims as young as 12 were rescued.
Responding by email to questions from the Sydney Morning Herald sent before he stepped down, Mr McBride said he never changed reports ”except to make them more readable and media orientated”.
Mr McBride said the charity, which last year had about 25 field operatives and was training 20 more, would not put ”people on the ground in Thailand until we get the all-clear from the DSI” although its website continues to appeal for donations to support its main objective to ”assist the police in Thailand in locating and rescuing children from trafficking and sexual abuse”.
Mr McBride said much of the controversy about the charity he founded in 2007 was about ”corruption and vested interests”.
The charity says it has rescued dozens of children from prostitution in Asia, the youngest being 10. It also works on prevention measures such as supporting employment and education programs in an attempt to stop children being trafficked for sexual exploitation.
But the charity has had acrimonious disputes with its operatives in Thailand, including police provided with costs to support its operations.
Referring to the hill-tribe children investigation and the Grey Man’s critics, Mr McBride said: ”Did we rescue 22 children and did we scam the Australian public? They know they are about to lose that one so they are using half-truths now to try and discredit us in other ways and they will keep trying.”
Police from the Chiang Mai police transnational crime unit said more than 20 hill-tribe children from a village in northern Chiang Rai province were not rescued from prostitution as the charity claimed on its website along with appeals for funds.
The DSI is investigating claims the children had never left their homes, had continued to attend school and had suffered as a result of the publicity. Mr McBride said the Grey Man had provided the DSI with a comprehensive response to the allegations.
In responses to questions from the Herald, Mr McBride defended the use of photographs of hill-tribe children on its website above references to children being taken to a brothel.
”There don’t seem to be many photos of hill-tribe kids. If they were sex-trade victims they would have their eyes blacked out,” Mr McBride said.
”I suppose people could make a connection between those kids and brothels but it was not our intention.”
Operations to rescue sex trade workers in Thailand have become highly contentious.
The Empower Foundation, which represents Thai sex workers, said in a report this month that ”we have now reached a point where there are more women in the Thai sex industry being abused by anti-trafficking practice than there are women exploited by traffickers”.
The foundation was not referring specifically to the Grey Man, whose headquarters are in Brisbane, which has been strongly supported by Australia’s legal profession, including judges.
The Grey Man board has appointed a former Australian federal police agent, Colin Rowley, to replace Mr McBride who will no longer be involved.
Lindsay Murdoch- Sydney Morning Herald