Face of pain must rid us of slavery sins
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Face of pain must rid us of slavery sins

The photo of Rohima Khatun in the Bangkok Post yesterday should be on the desks of all officials who have promised to arrest trafficking kingpins and stop Thailand from being a slave trade hub. 

Her wide, perplexed eyes staring into empty space, her mouth agape in a state of shock, Rohima's haunting image embodies the suffering of the Rohingya in the slave trade that Thai authorities have long denied.

They cannot cleanse their sins until Rohima recovers, is reunited with her missing daughter, and safely sent home with proper compensation and, more importantly, with the traffickers and corrupt officials behind the slave trade punished severely.

Rohima and her daughter had been detained in one of the jungle camps in Songkhla's Padang Besar subdistrict on the Thai-Malaysian border. The traffickers got wind of the police crackdown - obviously on their paid grapevine - and they left in a hurry. Rohima was left behind because she was too sick - too poor a commodity to take along.

She told Bangkok Post reporter Paritta Wangkiat that she and her daughter were taken from Myanmar and kept in captivity and hardship for four months. Her death's door conditions echo appalling stories from other trafficking victims: They are starved, beaten, and tortured so their relatives will agree to pay ransom money. Those who cannot pay receive heavier punishments, or are sold as slaves to trawlers. Many become sick. Many die. Many are killed.

When Rohima says she does not know where her daughter is, all mothers can feel her pain. The Rohingya slave trade has been going on for more than a decade. How many sons and daughters have been tortured, enslaved and killed? How many tears? How many mothers' broken hearts?

I find it maddening every time I hear officials talking about human trafficking as a matter of the country losing face and it being a threat to export money. There is a total lack of compassion and moral outrage. Where are their hearts? It's why I doubt if they can deliver on their promise to get tough with traffickers and corrupt officials.

The Prayut government is in the hot seat because the long-festering problem has blown up in its face. It has received a double whammy, one by the US for its lack of effort in fighting human trafficking, and the other by the EU's threat to boycott Thai seafood products for illegal and destructive fishing.

The two problems are intertwined. Traffickers sell slave workers - many are those who cannot pay ransom money - to deep-sea trawlers. Many die at sea. Many run away and became stranded on Indonesian islands - as recently exposed by the media.

To show the EU that the government is taking action, more rules are being imposed to regulate the fishing industry. But there is no real action to punish slave boats and stop destructive fishing.

And to show the US, more rules are also being imposed, yet no big fish in the trafficking rackets have been arrested. With the Padang Besar mass burial site and death camp horrors, the government is trying to rescue the country's tainted international image by promising yet again to get tough on slave traders and corrupt officials.

The Rohingya slave trade by trans-border syndicates is more organised than a decade ago. Before, it was ethnic Muslim Rohingya trying to escape atrocities in Myanmar. Now, the syndicates go straight to Myanmar and Bangladesh to lie to local Rohingya about good jobs in Malaysia, or even to abduct them.

According to interviews with victims by the Lawyers Council of Thailand, Thai boats are sent to receive them. Then the journey is broken in southern Thailand. The police enter the scene with arrest threats. Traffickers then tell the victims' relatives to send more money so they can continue their journey to Malaysia. Meantime, they are detained in numerous camps along the Thai-Malaysian border, obviously with local officials' knowledge and money changing hands.

Following the death camp scandal, a number of local administrators were arrested and some police officers transferred. A Myanmar national believed to be a "core human trafficking broker" in the South has also been detained. 

Those arrests, however, involve corrupt people almost at the end of the food chain. They get money for helping the slave trade barons. And there are many of them, not just one. 

The prime minister and his men have promised to net the big fish. The whole world is watching closely to see if they can do it. Until then, they must keep the photo of Rohima on their desks.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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