Thai­land scram­bles to boost im­age over hu­man traf­fick­ing


Thai­land is ea­ger to show its new­found tough­ness on hu­man traf­fick­ing, tak­ing re­porters on pa­trols and tours of for­mer camps, co­op­er­at­ing with neigh­bor­ing coun­tries and the U.S., and ar­rest­ing dozens of of­fi­cials — in­clud­ing a high-rank­ing of­fi­cer in the mil­i­tary that now con­trols the coun­try. The junta even had a “Na­tional Anti-Hu­man Traf­fick­ing Day.”

The Southeast Asian coun­try is try­ing to dis­suade West­ern gov­ern­ments from lev­el­ing eco­nomic sanc­tions, but it has a daunt­ing en­emy: his­tory.

“Thai­land re­mains ma­jor cen­ter for hu­man traf­fick­ing.” Those words were em­bla­zoned on a huge head­line in a Thai daily news­pa­per printed nearly three years ago. The coun­try’s an­swer was largely to ig­nore the prob­lem, un­til re­cent events made that im­pos­si­ble.

The dis­cov­ery of 36 bod­ies at aban­doned traf­fick­ers’ camps near Thai­land’s south­ern bor­der with Malaysia has in­ten­si­fied in­ter­na­tional pres­sure on Thai­land to crack down on smug­glers. So has a sub­se­quent cri­sis in­volv­ing thou­sands of mi­grants who were stranded at sea by their traf­fick­ers — and whose boats were pushed back by Thai of­fi­cials. Those mi­grants, mainly Bangladeshis and eth­nic Ro­hingya mi­grants from Myan­mar, are just part of a hu­man-traf­fick­ing prob­lem that also in­cludes Thai fish­ing boats that have used slave la­bor.

Last June, Thai­land and Malaysia were put on a black­list in a U.S. State Depart­ment as­sess­ment on hu­man traf­fick­ing, a down­grade that can jeop­ar­dize its lu­cra­tive seafood and shrimp in­dus­tries. The Euro­pean Union also threat­ened Thai­land with a ban on seafood im­port by the end of the year un­less it dras­ti­cally changes its poli­cies on il­le­gal and un­reg­u­lated fish­ing.

A new State Depart­ment as­sess­ment is due this month, and Thai­land is push­ing for an up­grade with ef­forts that in­cluded its first-ever Anti-Hu­man Traf­fick­ing Day on Fri­day. The open­ing cer­e­mony at the prime min­is­ter’s Gov­ern­ment House was fol­lowed by dis­cus­sion about the prob­lem and an awards cer­e­mony for a jour­nal­ist, po­lice and of­fi­cials who have helped ex­pose hu­man traf­fick­ing prob­lems.

“To­day, we have

to ad­mit that this has been a prob­lem in Thai­land for a long time,” Prime Min­is­ter Prayuth Chan-ocha said as he opened the event with an hour-long speech.

“The gov­ern­ment is fo­cus­ing on pre­vent­ing and sup­press­ing hu­man traf­fick­ing and is determined to get rid of men who sell men, so that they no longer have a place to stand on our soil — no mat­ter how in­flu­en­tial they are or if they are gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials,” said Prayuth, who took power from a civil­ian gov­ern­ment in a May 2014 coup.

Yet even Fri­day’s event raised ques­tions about Thai­land’s se­ri­ous­ness. The jour­nal­ist who was hon­ored re­ported on traf­fick­ing from the coun­try’s in­land north, not the south and the sea, where the cri­sis has been most im­me­di­ate. Weeks ear­lier, when a Bangkok tele­vi­sion re­porter drew broad at­ten­tion to the is­sue by get­ting on a mi­grant boat to shoot video, Prayuth obliquely re­ferred to her as a trou­ble­maker.

Hu­man- rights ac­tivists and oth­ers have long ac­cused Thai au­thor­i­ties of col­lu­sion in the traf­fick­ing in­dus­try — claims that po­lice, mil­i­tary and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have long de­nied. But as the mi­grant camps, graves and boats drew global at­ten­tion, pres­sure grew on the gov­ern­ment to re­spond.

In a widen­ing hu­man-traf­fick­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion, more than 50 peo­ple have been ar­rested in a month, in­clud­ing lo­cal politi­cians, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, po­lice, and, in the past week, a se­nior-rank­ing army of­fi­cer. About 50 po­lice of­fi­cers in the south­ern prov­inces were also re­moved from their posts and in­ves­ti­gated for pos­si­ble in­volve­ment in traf­fick­ing syn­di­cates.

The junta-ap­pointed leg­is­la­ture passed a new anti-hu­man traf­fick­ing law that man­dates harsher penal­ties, and hu­man traf­fick­ingre­lated court cases will get a short­cut in the ju­di­cial sys­tem to pros­e­cute sus­pects more quickly.

Thai po­lice took jour­nal­ists on sev­eral treks into the trop­i­cal jun­gle along the Thai-Malaysia bor­der to wit­ness the ex­huma­tion of graves and watch as the of­fi­cers dis­man­tled aban­doned wooden shel­ters by hand.

Thai­land’s sud­den clam­p­down prompted some hu­man smug­glers to aban­don boats that were filled with mi­grants. Thou­sands of mi­grants reached shore — mostly in Malaysia and In­done­sia — but an un­known num­ber are be­lieved to re­main at sea.

Thai­land, In­done­sia and Malaysia all re­jected the ships as the cri­sis be­gan, and all have been con­duct­ing some mea­sure of dam­age con­trol with the me­dia.

Two days af­ter Malaysia con­firmed 28 mi­grant camps and 139 sus­pected graves on its side of the bor­der with Thai­land, more than 60 re­porters were taken on a three-hour trek to an aban­doned camp where a foren­sic team had ex­humed a body. Fur­ther re­quests to visit other mi­grant camps have been re­jected, though po­lice say they have now re­cov­ered 49 bod­ies from the gravesite the me­dia vis­ited.

Un­der in­ter­na­tional pres­sure, Malaysia and In­done­sia agreed to take mi­grants in tem­po­rar­ily. Thai­land did not, but in­sisted it will give hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance to the boat peo­ple.

“It’s not that Thai­land isn’t help­ing. It’s good that ev­ery­one is help­ing, but Thai­land has also pro­vided help and our hands are full al­ready,” deputy gov­ern­ment spokesman Sansern Kaewkam­n­erd told The As­so­ci­ated Press, adding that the coun­try al­ready gave shel­ters to 140,000 refugees, mostly in camps along the Myan­mar bor­der.

Last month Thai­land called a re­gional con­fer­ence and brought to­gether se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials from 17 coun­tries and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions to dis­cuss the swelling tide of boat peo­ple from Myan­mar and Bangladesh in Southeast Asia. But one mo­ment from the event re­flected the at times mud­dled na­ture of Thai­land’s co­op­er­a­tion.

The U.S. had for days been seek­ing Thai ap­proval to con­duct sur­veil­lance flights to look for mi­grants — ap­proval that Malaysia had quickly granted. Thai­land’s for­eign min­is­ter an­nounced to re­porters that the OK had been given, shortly af­ter a U.S. diplo­mat told jour­nal­ists that Amer­ica was still wait­ing.

On the same day as the Bangkok con­fer­ence, the Royal Thai Navy flew about 140 jour­nal­ists to the south­ern is­land of Phuket to see a naval ship that would be used as a float­ing base to give food, wa­ter and med­i­cal treat­ment to mi­grants at sea. The navy flew a he­li­copter and a light pa­trol air­craft in a cir­cle for cam­era­men to record the footage dur­ing the two-hour choreographed tour.


In this May 5, photo, a bor­der pa­trol po­lice of­fi­cer guards next to an aban­doned mi­grant camp on Khao Kaew moun­tain near the Thai-Malaysian bor­der in Padang Be­sar, Songkhla prov­ince, south­ern Thai­land.

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