The scale of human trafficking and the myriad forms modern slavery takes make it a vexing problem to understand, let alone tackle adequately. But equally vexing is the involvement of officials who are charged with the duty of upholding human rights and cracking people-smuggling rings.
The International Labour Organisation’s finding last month that 21 million people worldwide, mostly in Asia, were caught up in some form of forced labour by criminal networks making 4.8 trillion baht a year was disturbing enough. Then the US State Department aimed much of the blame at corrupt governments, law enforcement and military officials. Cases of protection of brothels with child sex trafficking victims, processing centres for food gathered through slave labour and reports of military involvement in the shameful treatment of Rohingya asylum seekers were all spelled out.
Add to this Thailand's reliance on cheap labour in the form of undocumented migrant workers such as those from Cambodia who fled so dramatically a fortnight ago. Most of the hundreds of thousands of illegal workers probably do not consider themselves slaves as they come seeking greater opportunities and higher pay, but there is no doubt they have been enabled by criminal networks and corrupt officials.
The ruling National Council for Peace and Order came to the same conclusion on Thursday, making a rare public admission that enforcement of the law had been weak and corruption from officials had hampered progress in the area. The junta’s head of legal and judicial affairs, Gen Phaiboon Khumchaya, did not go as far as the US State Department in that he did not assign blame to anyone wearing a military uniform, but did allude to corruption being the reason the law was not fully enforced.
“It is a chronic problem and we need to solve it,” Gen Phaiboon said. He outlined a plan to discuss the matter with police and relevant figures in the justice system who may be able to explain court delays. He also spoke of the fishing industry, which has received much international attention thanks to efforts of The Guardian in the days before the US trafficking report. On this, Gen Phaiboon said it might be necessary to look beyond Thai waters, and he encouraged fishing operators to come forward with details of their recruiting processes.
What fruit these words will bear remains to be seen, but in rhetoric at least this is a step in the right direction. After writing a thesis on such non-traditional security threats as undocumented migrant workers, junta leader Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has been much more conciliatory in recent weeks towards those at the bottom of the human trafficking chain. It is encouraging that he has spoken about pursuing the criminals exploiting them.
Part of breaking the migrant workers’ reliance on criminal and corrupt networks when crossing the border from Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar will also involve making the legal process cheaper and easier. As the US trafficking report said: “The process to legalise migrant workers involves high fees and poorly regulated and unlicensed labour brokers, increasing the vulnerability of migrant workers to trafficking and debt bondage.” While there is an argument to be made that the Thai economy has become too dependent on these labourers, for now they are an essential part of it and the system has been set up against them.
Given the scope and complexities of the problem, however, there will be no panacea. Talk of rooting out corruption and enforcing the law is all well and good, but putting it into action will take long-term cultural reform. It will also require that best of disinfectants — sunlight. No significant anti-corruption measures will succeed without transparency.
The junta has denied it is restricting the rights of news organisations, yet has established five panels that will oversee print, broadcast, online and international media. A significant part of its remit will be monitoring for any information about the NCPO’s work it deems false, and, if serious enough, bringing that directly to Gen Prayuth’s attention. These panels, combined with edicts outlawing criticism of the junta, do make attempts to hold the military to account more difficult.
If tackling human trafficking gangs and the corrupt government, police and military networks that enable them is to be a priority, it cannot be done in the dark. It will require openness and transparency, and a media free enough to pursue such stories wherever they lead.
A major symbolic gesture in that direction would be for the Royal Thai Navy to drop its worrying defamation case against Phuketwan journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian. The pair, awaiting trial and facing up to 14 and seven years in jail respectively, were persistent in a long-running campaign to expose the networks trafficking Rohingya refugees.
They, along with all other media outlets and corruption-busting organisations, should be allowed to work without fear.