Traffickers hit new lows

Traffickers hit new lows

Recent attention has focused on the seemingly never-ending flow of refugees and distressed people seeking shelter in Thailand. The Chinese government on Sunday demanded that Thailand send more than 200 suspected Uighurs back home. The Chinese interest in the would-be refugees also put the spotlight on a new, large wave of Rohingya boat people and a concerning new case of human trafficking concerning Thai children.

There is only one apparent reason why China wants the suspected Uighurs back, and why Thailand would consider such a request is hard to ascertain. Despite the soothing words from Chinese consul Qin Jian in Songkhla, Chinese authorities clearly want to isolate these refugees and, at a minimum, interrogate them. As Mr Qin told the press, "they have been uncooperative", with Chinese embassy officials in Thailand. In China, one suspects, cooperation could be guaranteed.

Thailand could agree to send the Uighurs back to China. By complying with China's request, the military regime would risk underestimating public opinion, however, by resisting it the military risks overestimating the chances of retaliation with China. Thus, there are two reasons the government and NCPO should think twice about such a move.

One hopes that the first reason is obvious at the military leadership level. The mandate of traditional Thai and Buddhist compassion forbids rejection of those in need. Another  related reason is the huge dent expulsion would inflict on Thailand's hard-earned reputation for harbouring refugees and the helpless. This stretches back almost 100 years, when anti-colonial leaders including Ho Chi Minh sheltered in Thailand. While authorities have occasionally blemished that record, the world still remembers Thailand's provision of shelter for more than a million victims of communist and Myanmar brutality.

The Rohingya have been cruelly treated for the past several years. More than any community in Myanmar, they have suffered the most and gained the least from the regime's democratic reforms. It seems clear that authorities are "encouraging" the Muslim minority to flee the country. In many ways, the wave of Rohingya boat people resembles Vietnam's expulsion of unwanted groups in the 1980s, and Cuba's a decade before.

Human traffickers, often indistinguishable from slavery rings, have exploited the boat people. They have captured them, forced them to work and held them against their will. Groups have been forced to pay for their own freedom — thousands or tens of thousands of baht per head on occasion. There are allegations that the police and military have been the cruelest of all, forcing Rohingya to sea in obviously unseaworthy boats.

The Rohingya boat people have become inextricably linked to the country's most dreadful albatross: human trafficking. Last week, there was proof that the slave-labour gangs have no compassion or sympathy with evidence that a so-called "labour agency" had shanghaied 13- and 15-year-old Thai youths. They put them on board a fishing trawler that has been operating in Indonesian waters since at least September.

The boys' mothers, both from the Northeast, got news of their sons through the Indonesian authorities. They have appealed to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's government for help in recovering their sons. But the weeping, worried mothers have revealed another secret of human trafficking: Not even Thai children are safe.

Prime Minister Prayut and the government must act in Thailand's interests to protect endangered people. Now that it is confirmed that human traffickers have put even Thai children at risk, we have the best reason ever to act urgently and forcefully against them.

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