The truth shall set you free — Robert Talcoth

    The victims, believed to be Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh, had been held captive by human traffickers in the jungle. The camp served as a transit point where illegal migrants were held before being sold or shipped to other destinations in Southeast Asia.

    JULY 11 — On 1 May Thai authorities found the bodies of 26 migrants in a detention camp in the jungles of Songkhla province, near the border with Malaysia.

    The victims, believed to be Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh, had been held captive by human traffickers in the jungle. The camp served as a transit point where illegal migrants were held before being sold or shipped to other destinations in Southeast Asia.

    Thailand has long served as a centre for human trafficking groups operating in Southeast Asia. Groups of people from neighboring countries come to Thailand to find work in factories, construction or the booming sex industry. But many also come to escape violence and persecution in their homeland. Human trafficking in the region has increased in recent years due to ethnic conflicts between Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslim’s have left Myanmar to escape violence and persecution.

    The Rohingya, considered to be one of the largest groups of stateless peoples in the world, have suffered decades of discrimination and injustice in Myanmar. The Myanmar government has since independence in 1948 refused to acknowledge the Rohingya as one of the nation’s indigenous ethnic groups. The roughly one million Rohingya living in Myanmar have no citizenship and their legal rights are limited. The Myanmar government classifies them as intruders that have illegally entered Myanmar from Bangladesh.

    The Rohingya claim to have a historical connection to Rakhine state in western Myanmar, where the majority of them still live. This claim is backed up by some scholars. Certain groups of Rohingya can trace their ancestry back to pre-colonial kingdoms in the region; others came to present day Myanmar from Bengal during the colonial era in the mid-1800s. When ethnic violence in Rakhine state intensified in 2012, large numbers of Rohingya fled Myanmar. Human Rights Watch accuses the Myanmar authorities of actively supporting and at times taking part in ethnic violence aimed at the Rohingya minority. The objective of the attacks appears to be to drive the Rohingya out of Myanmar.

    Human traffickers have capitalised on the suffering and desperation of these refugees. The traffickers have received large sums of money to bring Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to different destinations in Southeast Asia.

    However, the Rohingya’s problems often do not end after leaving Myanmar. Once out of the country they can find themselves in the hands of human trafficking gangs whom in many cases do not fulfill their end of the bargain. According to several reports, human traffickers have held people hostage and demanded ransom money from their families, instead of delivering them to their promised destinations. In many cases the gangs have murdered the hostages after receiving money.

    During the last couple of months Thai and Malaysian authorities have discovered several detention camps and mass graves in the deep jungles along the Thai-Malaysian border.  People being held in these camps have been forced to live under horrible conditions. Survivors have given reports of regular beatings, rape and threats. Activists believe that there still could be more than 60 camps within the Thai-Malaysia border area. The majority of refugees found in the camps have paid traffickers to bring them out of Myanmar, but some survivors claimed to have been kidnapped from their hometown and held hostage by traffickers.

    The discovery of the detention camps and mass graves came during a time when Thailand was already under pressure from the international community for not addressing human trafficking problems in the region. Detailed reports describing exploitation and violence against migrant workers in Thailand have received growing international attention. Human rights organisations have accused Thai authorities of being involved in human trafficking and profiting from the exploitation of migrant workers.

    As a result of the government’s unwillingness to seriously address  human trafficking issues, Thailand was downgraded to a tier 3 ranking, the lowest, on the human trafficking index in 2014. This placed the country in the same category as North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

    There has been particular focus placed on the treatment of migrant workers in Thailand’s multimillion dollar fishing industry. Detailed reports on the horrific conditions of migrant workers, mainly from Myanmar and Cambodia, in Thailand’s fishing industry have been published in the international press. The reports state that the Thai fishing industry is partially built on slavery and systematic exploitation of migrant workers. In many cases migrant workers had paid middlemen to be taken to Thailand and start working in factories, but instead of the promised factory work they were sold to fishing boats where they were forced to work under slave like conditions.

    A large number of workers on Thai fishing boats claimed to have been forced to work 20-hour shifts while receiving beatings by their superiors and earning practically nothing. The workers were in some cases only fed one meal per day and those that got sick or were unable to work were sometimes even thrown overboard. A 2014 report from Reuters detailing the persecution and trafficking of the Rohingya in Southeast Asia showed that Thai authorities do not only turn a blind eye to human trafficking and abuse, government officials are also often directly linked to human trafficking rings whom exploit migrant workers in the region.

    The European Union has taken a clear stance against fishing products coming from unlawful practices, such as the usage of forced labor and fishing methods that harm the environment. Thailand’s failure to act on a number of issues related to the country’s fishing industry has led the EU to threaten a ban on seafood imports  from Thailand. If Thailand doesn’t show improvement within a certain timeframe a ban might come into place. This is an issue that the Thai government is currently dealing with. A large amount of the county’s fishing boats are presently not allowed to leave  harbour due to the lack of proper documents and failure to follow regulations.

    The Thai military junta has tried to divert attention away from  human trafficking s and they have on a number of occasions publicly warned local journalists not to write about its presence in Thailand and especially trafficking related to the fishing industry.

    When two local Thai journalists cited parts of a Reuter’s report that linked the Thai Navy to human trafficking networks they were arrested by police and charged with defamation. The case is still ongoing and the two journalists could face several years in prison if convicted.

    In another case, a journalist from Channel 3 who reported on the conditions of workers in the Thai fishing industry was summoned by the military junta. In his television show ‘Bringing back happiness to the people’, General Prayuth Chan-ocha criticised the Thai media for writing negative things about Thailand and the government. He stated that anyone that loves the country should not write anything negative, and he wondered if the journalists that had published information about human trafficking and the fishing industry were really Thai.

    The two separate incidents , can be viewed as attempts by the government to intimidate journalists and stop them from writing about the issue. It is clear that the military regime does not want the people to have access to information that details the hardship imposed on migrant workers and the corruption related to trafficking of people. The message sent out is that whoever brings up this issue will face consequences.

    The prospects of losing hundreds of millions of baht as a result of the European Union’s potential ban on Thai fishing imports have forced the government to seriously address fishing practices and human trafficking. When it became clear that authorities were actually going to crackdown on human trafficking the trafficking gangs started to panic and illegal migrants kept in camps in the jungle and onboard boats in the sea were abandoned and left to fend for themselves.

    In May thousands of Rohingya and other migrants were bounced around the region’s seas as Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand pushed back their boats. Many had fled persecution and poverty in Myanmar.

    Thai authorities refused to allow the refugees to enter Thailand on the grounds that they lacked sufficient resources to take care of them. This sparked a wave of criticism from the international community who argued that the Southeast Asian nations have a common responsibility to address the humanitarian disaster.

    As the issue  received increasing attention in Thai media it also took centre stage on Thai social media.  Some commentators criticised the government’s decision to turn away the refugees, but the most vocal group on social media supported it.

    In the midst of the refugee crisis American Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to the Thai government about the possibility of Thailand providing temporary shelter for the Rohingya. This was interpreted by Thai netizens as an attempt by the US to pressure Thailand into sheltering the Rohingya boat refugees, and it sparked an outrage on Thai social media.

    The US, which already had a tense relationship with the Thai government and its supporters after criticising the 2014 military coup, was accused of once again meddling in Thailand’s internal affairs. Thai netizens argued that if the US is so concerned about the welfare of the Rohingya they should take care of them and let them go to America. — new mandala

    * Robert Talcoth is a graduate of Chulalongkorn University’s Southeast Asian Studies program.

    ** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.