Presented with the findings of this report, Thailand’s second-highest-ranking policeman made some startling admissions. Thai officials might have profited from Rohingya smuggling in the past, said Police Major General Chatchawal Suksomjit, deputy commissioner-general of the Royal Thai Police. He also confirmed the existence of illegal camps in southern Thailand, which he called “holding bays.”
Tarit Pengdith, chief of the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand’s equivalent of the US FBI, was also asked about the camps.
“We have heard about these camps in southern Thailand,” he said, “but we are not investigating this issue.”
Besieged by a political crisis and violent street protests this week, Thailand faces difficult questions about its future and global status. Among those is whether it will join North Korea, the Central African Republic and Iran among the world’s worst offenders in fighting human trafficking. The signs are not good. The US State Department’s annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report ranks countries based on their record for combating the crime. For the past four years, Thailand has sat on the TIP report’s so-called “Tier 2 Watch List,” the second-lowest rank. It will be automatically downgraded to Tier 3 next year unless it makes what the State Department calls “significant efforts” to eliminate human trafficking.
Dropping to Tier 3 status theoretically carries the threat of US sanctions. In practice, the US is unlikely to sanction Thailand, one of its oldest treaty allies in Asia. However, to be downgraded would be a major embarrassment to Thailand, which is now lobbying hard for a non-permanent position on the UN Security Council.
Rohingya are Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh, where they are usually stateless and despised as illegal immigrants. Last year, two eruptions of violence between Rohingyas and majority Buddhists in Rakhine state in western Myanmar killed at least 192 people and made 140,000 homeless. Most were Rohingya, who live in wretched camps or under apartheid-like segregation with little access to healthcare, schools or jobs.
Over the past year they have fled Myanmar by sea in unprecedented numbers. Ismail and Mohamed joined tens of thousands of Rohingya in one of the biggest movements of boat people since the end of the Vietnam War. Widespread bias against the Rohingya in the region, however, makes it difficult for them to find safe haven — and easy to fall into the hands of traffickers.
“No one is there to speak for them,” Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson said. “They are a lost people.”
Rohingya men, women and children squeeze aboard overloaded fishing boats and cargo ships to cross the Bay of Bengal. Their desired destination is Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country where at least 31,000 Rohingya already live. As reported in July, many of these refugees were waylaid in Thailand, where the Thai navy and marine police worked with smugglers to extract money for their onward trip to Malaysia.
Hundreds of Rohingyas were arrested in two headline-grabbing raids by the Thai authorities on Jan. 9 in the towns of Padang Besar and Sadao, both near the Malaysia border. At the time, Colonel Krissakorn Paleetunyawong, deputy commander of police in the area, declared the Rohingya would be deported back to Myanmar. That never happened.