Graves have shamed us

Graves have shamed us

The discovery of the mass grave of what are probably trafficked victims on our shores needs to be followed by the most swift and decisive action possible. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the highest-ranking police officers have promised to tackle the scourge of modern-day slavery — this sad and tragic incident gives them the chance back up their words.

A Songkhla field, reportedly used by traffickers to hold illegal immigrants, is now a grim death camp. The discovery of more than 30 graves there has echoed around the world, focusing attention on Thai authorities to hunt down those at the very top of this vile business.

Past governments have talked quite a game on human trafficking. Yet in the past decade no human trafficking gangs have been nailed and no notable officials arrested. Meanwhile, the number of trafficked persons has grown considerably.

At the same time, Thailand's global image has progressively deteriorated. Last year it hit rock bottom in the annual US report on human trafficking. Alongside this is the prospect of a severe economic backlash over trafficking: The European Union has issued us with a "yellow card", obligating Thailand to clean up the abominable violations in the seafood industry, one of the country's biggest export earners.

The Prayut government has acted to remedy past inequities. It has launched foreign labour registration, changed outdated laws and increased penalties, streamlined legal procedures and declared the fight against human trafficking a national priority, promising to penalise all those involved.

The time for promises ran out on Friday. No one within or outside Thailand will give any credence to claims by the government, military or police that they are on the verge of closing down human traffickers.

When the graves in Songkhla's Sadao district were revealed, it was telling that senior police officers, including national chief Somyot Pumpunmuang, claimed they were aware the area was being used by human traffickers. If Pol Gen Somyot or any of his subordinates had acted on that information, they could have saved lives and struck a blow against trafficking.

If the Bangkok-based chief of police knew about the Sadao trafficking camps, clearly so did many others. By inference, human trafficking gangs are working with the knowledge, if not direct connivance, of important figures. The stark choice facing Pol Gen Somyot and Prime Minister Prayut is: They must move quickly to smash the human trafficking rings and reel in the "influential figures". The risk to them otherwise is massive criticism and loss of credibility.

The involvement of officials has long caused public unease. Newspapers, TV, internet forums and movies are not shy to broach the subject. It is no longer shocking that officials with strong connections to Bangkok power rings are involved. What is shocking is that the government, the military and the police refuse to act.

The killing fields of Sadao must be investigated and those responsible charged. For nearly a year, the military regime has promised action against trafficking. Yet repeatedly the country is being shamed — by the US ranking, the EU yellow card, NGO reports and even domestic cinema such as the recent movie Ameen. Its time is up.

The Songkhla graves are a turning point. This government must bring justice to the dead of Sadao or face unmitigated shame at home and abroad.

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