Print Edition - 2015-05-07  |  ASIANEWSNETWORK

Fresh horror haunts Thailand’s human trafficking record

Fresh horror haunts Thailand’s human trafficking record

May 6, 2015-

The discovery of 26 corpses of what are believed to be Muslim Rohingya migrants threatens to sink Thailand’s already dismal reputation on human trafficking even further. With the United States currently reviewing its annual report on Trafficking in Persons (TIP), the grisly find has left the Thai military regime struggling to convince the international community it is doing enough to combat the trafficking.

The mass grave—thought to contain the bodies of stateless people from the Myanmar-Bangladesh border—was found on a hilltop in the southern border province of Songkhla last week.

The bodies were discovered at a “holding area”, where migrants were kept before being sneaked across the porous border into Malaysia. While the cause of the deaths is not yet clear, the police chief described the site as a “virtual prison camp”, which appeared to have been abandoned just days before its discovery.

Its secrets would likely have been buried forever had one “prisoner” not escaped and told his story to police. But that story has raised even more questions over the country’s handling of trafficking. The major question is how traffickers managed to build this holding camp (and perhaps others) in Songkhla. How did they hide so many people on a hilltop without their activities being noticed by the authorities? The hills in the border region between Songkhla’s Sadao district and Malaysia’s Pedang Besar are notorious for their trafficking trails. Every Thai border official who works in this area knows about them.

The lone survivor said he had heard that more than 500 migrants had been killed in the holding areas along the border. The recently established trafficking investigation team says there is at least one more camp in the area where the mass grave was discovered. Police had apparently been tipped off to the presence of such camps long before last week’s grisly discovery, yet they chose not to take any action or investigate further.

Difficulties managing political transition in the capital are no longer an excuse for the authorities’ failure to act on this problem. Thailand has been under the international microscope over human trafficking for years now. The country was downgraded to the lowest tier in the annual US TIP report last year. This year’s report is due in the next couple of months.

The military-backed government, whose rulers cited the threat of civil war and the need for reform as reasons for ousting an elected administration last May, claims it is working hard to end the trafficking.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has threatened officials caught aiding traffickers with tough punishment. His government set up a committee to combat trafficking last year after the TIP downgrade. But rather than ordering concrete action, the committee has mostly been busy with diplomacy and preparing information updates for Washington in a bid to get Thailand’s TIP status upgraded.

Foreign Ministry officials have been striving to convince the international community of Thailand’s “good intentions” in the fight against trafficking. Meanwhile authorities and security officials tasked with actually tackling the problem mostly stand idle.

When they have acted, it has been to arrest the victims rather than traffickers. None of the major trafficking syndicates has been rooted out in the months since Prayut pledged serious action. Instead, Prayut’s government and his armed forces have maintained a stance of intimidation towards news media that report on the issue.

To turn his words into action that yields results, the prime minister must determine whether the officials tasked with tackling trafficking are doing their job. Public relations must take a back seat until Thailand can actually show real gains in the battle against the trafficking of people.

Editorial Desk

Published: 07-05-2015 08:43

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