Act now on slavery shame

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha met Myanmar President Thein Sein at the 25th Asean Summit in Nay Pyi Taw this week. Unfortunately, global attention was not so much on the economic dreams the pair wanted to share with the world, but on their roles in the modern day slave trade.

Human trafficking has long made the Asean community the target of international criticism. Undeniably, Myanmar and Thailand are among the main culprits.

Questions then followed as to how the two countries could produce meaningful measures to end their cross-border trade in human lives.

As the country of origin, Myanmar bears a responsibility to end the harsh political and economic oppression that pushes millions of its people into the hands of human traffickers out of desperation for a better life. 

As the destination, Thailand has a responsibility to prevent labour abuse and set up a system that ensures labour rights and protection for migrant workers.

In reality, both countries have allowed human trafficking syndicates to run a modern slave trade. Impoverished Myanmar migrant workers and ethnic Muslim Rohingya are cheated, enslaved, tortured, sold and used as forced labour, especially in the deep-sea fishing industry.

At the Asean summit, Gen Prayut stressed the importance of joint regional efforts to battle human trafficking and transnational crime. With the country being overwhelmed with Rohingya boat people, Myanmar is obviously his target audience.

While joint efforts are necessary, it would be more urgent — and more effective — for both countries to get rid of the root of the ills that make human trafficking a thriving industry — their own corrupt officials.

According to a report by Fortify Rights, an international human rights organisation, the persecuted ethnic Rohingya must pay security forces huges sum of money to flee the country by boat. As part of a transnational crime syndicate, these officials even escort human trafficking boats out to international waters, Fortify Rights claimed.

"State security forces are complicit in and profit from the increasingly lucrative maritime human trafficking and smuggling of Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State," Fortify Rights said.

The Rohingya's horrific stories of physical assault during enslavement and extortion for ransom money on the Thai side of the border are well documented. The setting up of secret camps on islands and the Thai-Malaysian borders during ransom is not possible without help from officials.

As victims of human trafficking, the Rohingya and other trafficked migrant workers are entitled by law to help to return home and compensation. Yet, police and security forces prefer to treat them as illegal immigrants who must be immediately deported.

More often than not, the human traffickers are waiting at the border to pick the migrants up and send them back to the Thai border again. Many officials are getting rich from this deportation practice.

Pressured by rights groups, some Rohingya have been sent to detention centres, pending nationality verification before being sent home. Last year, hundreds were "allowed" to flee detention centres, back into traffickers' arms. There was no investigation and no officials were punished.

Just this week, about 130 Uighur asylum seekers "disappeared" from a shelter in Songkhla. The officials blamed it on a lack of personnel to closely guard the detainees. There will be no investigation; no one will be punished.

Neither the Myanmar nor the Thai governments can beat the transnational crime syndicates and rescue their countries' names unless they get tough with their corrupt officials.