Mon, Jun 08, 2015 - Page 5 News List

Tough talk on trafficking from Thais amid doubts

AP, BANGKOK

Royal Thai Navy officers on May 29 load food and water onto the HTMS Angthong near a port in Phuket Province. The ship is serving as a floating base to support the navy’s mission to search and give humanitarian assistance to the migrants at sea.

Photo: AP

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 US, and arresting dozens of officials — including a high-ranking military officer. The junta even had a “National Anti-Human Trafficking Day.”

The 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.

In June last year, Thailand and Malaysia were put on a blacklist in a US Department of State assessment on human trafficking, a downgrade that can jeopardize its lucrative seafood and shrimp industries. The EU 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,” Thai 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 coup in May last year.

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. However, 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.

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