Pressing questions after human trafficking grave found in southern Thailand

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 5, 2015 Thailand's military government is facing new pressure following the discovery of a mass grave in the country's south, where dozens of bodies, presumably victims of human trafficking, were buried. Police have made several arrests linked to the crime and the Thai junta has vowed to take action.

The shallow graves containing 26 bodies were discovered by Thai authorities on Friday in Songkhla province, deep in the jungle near the Malaysian border and is believed to be part of a camp where up to 400 trafficked migrants were held for ransom and confined to 39 bamboo huts. Some survivors were found at or near the camp. On the possible cause of death, a Thai police officer stated:

"From initial forensic investigation at the site there are no marks on the bones or breakages that would suggest a violent death," Police Colonel Triwit Sriprapa, deputy commander of Songkhla Provincial Police, said. "It is likely that they died from disease and malnutrition."

"Bodies from mass grave in Thailand jungle camp 'didn't die violently'", South Chinese Morning Post, May 4, 2015

Thai police also have yet to confirm that the migrants were Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority that have been denied citizenship in neighboring Burma (Myanmar) and targeted in violent persecutions by extremist Buddhists over the past couple of years, resulting in hundreds being killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. This has driven thousands to flee the country, many via the Andaman Sea in the hope of reaching Malaysia or Indonesia, but often illegally cross into Thai territory. These risky boat trips are mostly facilitated or intercepted by human traffickers, who then hold these refugees for ransom from their relatives or force into them into labor to pay off their debts.

That these cases have become so rampant and busts like the one last week are so rare is due to many factors: on one hand Thai authorities regard these migrants as illegal economic immigrants and not as refugees. Also they in some instances have failed to report such activities based on a technicality. Even worse, some Thai officials themselves were directly involved in human trafficking as well, with few consequences (see Siam Voices' coverage in 2013) - other than going after those reporting on these shortcomings.

This has partly contributed to Thailand's poor anti-human trafficking record, resulting in a downgrade by the U.S. Sate Department last year and more recently being put on a watch list by the European Union because of slaves on Thai fishing boats (see here, here and here) - which could result in a trade ban for Thai seafood products.

The methods of the traffickers have become more sophisticated, as fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Francis Wade wrote:

[...] it’s worth remembering how [Thai] officials have aided and profited from a trade suspected to be worth up to $250 million annually. With the rising profits has also come a greater sophistication in the trade: the boy who watched fellow travelers being pitched into the ocean said he only managed to survive because his boat had a desalination plant that supplied fresh water to his and other vessels carrying trafficked Rohingya. As Phuketwan notes, the clampdowns on onshore trafficking sites have moved the industry further “offshore”, and onto floating camps where the smugglers’ bounty is held until the next link in the trafficking chain running from Burma (Myanmar) to Thailand is ready to take them. Until demand is curtailed, traffickers will keep coming up with new ways to ensure the industry stays afloat.

"Rohingya deaths: String of mass graves stretches from Burma to Thailand", by Francis Wade, Asian Correspondent, May 1, 2015

Also, a survivor who managed to escape captivity told The Nation about the conditions in these camps, saying the 26 bodies may only be the tip of the iceberg:

(...) this survivor said he had heard that more than 500 victims were killed at various camps holding human-trafficking or kidnap victims along the Thai-Malaysian borders. "I've also heard that thousands of Rohingya migrants were at those camps waiting for promised jobs or for ransom to arrive," he said.

This survivor said he was lured out of Myanmar's Rakhine state six months ago by an offer to find him a job in Malaysia. He ended up in the same camp as Kazim, where between 700 and 800 migrants were held. "My mum had to sell our family's land to pay for my ransom. That's why I am still safe," he said. (...)

The survivor from the camp said that during his time there, between 17 and 20 people were killed. "They were either shot or clubbed to death," he said. He said victims whose relatives could not afford the ransom would be fatally attacked or left to die.

"Survivor believes more than 500 killed in camps", by Krissana Thiwatsirikul, Mary Bradley & Somjit Rungjamrasrassamee, The Nation, May 4, 2015

Thai authorities said on Monday that four suspects have been arrested in connection to the mass grave, among them a local administrative official, two police officers and a Burmese man. The latter is reportedly already known to the police as a human trafficker and his arrest is hailed as "huge", according to the provincial deputy police commander. Four other suspects are being sought.

Meanwhile, after inspecting the scene with the National Police chief over the weekend, Thai army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr has pledged to "punish" local authorities if illegal smuggling of Rohingyas take place in their respective jurisdictions. This was followed later that day by an order to transfer local police officers to inactive posts, among them the police commander of Satun province, high ranking officers of the border town Padang Besar's police station, and the border patrol police.

Human Rights Watch has called for an independent and international inquiry. That is not very surprising, since it expresses skepticism towards the Thai authorities - given that they have been aware of human trafficking actions for years, but have failed to act upon it with some even enriching themselves with it - and their ability to completely clean up their own ranks.

Siam Voices 2013 review – Part 3: The Rohingya, unwelcomed and ignored

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 29, 2013 In the third part of our Siam Voices 2013 year in review series, we highlight the plight of Southeast Asia's most persecuted refugees, the Rohingya. In Thailand, it seems that they are particularly unwelcomed by authorities.

Ever since neighboring Myanmar has gradually opened up to the world politically and economically in the past few, it has also unearthed the animosity of some against the Rohingya people, an ethnic muslim minority that has been denied citizenship for decades. This animosity grew into hateful violence when deadly riots in Rakhine state in 2012 (and later in other places) displaced over 100,000 Rohingyas.

Many thousands are fleeing Myanmar in overcrowded and fragile vessels, often operated by human traffickers. Preferred destinations - that is if they make it through the Andaman Sea - are Malaysia and Indonesia, but more often than not they either involuntarily arrive in Thailand or are being intercepted by Thai authorities. During the low tide months between October to February, almost 6,000 Rohingyas according to Thai authorities have entered Thai territory.

Because the Thai state regards them as illegal economic immigrants rather than persecuted refugees, they're repeatedly refused asylum and in most cases the Thai authorities are sticking to the policy they euphemistically call "helping on": intercepted refugee vessels are given food, medicine and additional fuel before towed out to sea again on their way elsewhere. Should a boat be deemed unsafe, they will be deported back to Myanmar. There have been past allegations against Thai officials that these boats have been simply set adrift or even removed their engines - as happened again in February this year - with little inquiry and thus consequences.

This year, reports of human trafficking involvement by Thai officials emerged over the months during and following the waves of refugee boats passing Thailand's coastlines. It started with one of them carrying 73 migrants found on New Year's Day, but instead of the usual procedure they were split up and put on other boats. As it turns out, according to an investigation by the BBC, members of the Thai Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) had sold these people off to human traffickers. An internal investigation found no wrongdoing by their own officers, but has nonetheless transferred two accused ISOC officers out of the South.

However, the allegations did not die down over the course of the year as two investigative reports by Reuters in particular (here and here) have put more weight on these, accompanied most recently by calls to Thailand from the United Nations and the United States to investigate these claims - none of which have taken place so far despite repeated pledges by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra so far. The same empty-handed result happened after a reported shooting incident in late February during a botched boat transfer killed at least two refugees. Again, calls for a probe were met - like in any other case - with deafening silence. Additionally, around 800 refugees were found in illegal human trafficking camps in south Thailand in January.

Those refugees that were being sheltered in Thailand faced no better conditions. In the summer months, around 2,000 Rohingya were detained in 24 stations across the country mostly located in the South under vastly differing standards. Some were overcrowded and caused the detainees to riot, others were regularly made accessible for human traffickers to lure refugees out. Thai authorities have discussed expanding or building new detention facilities, but this was met with resistance by local residents. The fate of these men, women and children is still to this day unresolved as a deadline by the Thai government to find third-party countries taking them on passed on July 26 with no result, thus leaving them in legal limbo.

The Rohingya issue and the (reported mis-)handling by Thai authorities - largely underreported in the domestic media and thus mostly met with indifference by the general public - is slowly becoming a national shame. But judging by its actions it appears little will change about that attitude: a formerly highly-regarded forensic expert reheated her old claim that some Rohingya might be involved in the insurgency in the deep south and a Thai minister even accused them to be "feigning pitifulness" for the media.

In general, the Thai authorities seemed to be more concerned with its own image rather that the wellbeing of the refugees, as evident just last week when the Royal Thai Navy filed a lawsuit against two journalists from Phuket Wan- who have been diligently reporting on this issue - for defamation and even resorted to invoke the Computer Crimes Act (see yesterday's part), even though these two journalists had been merely quoting from the aforementioned Reuters' story. The lawsuit has been met with criticism, including from the UN.

Supreme Commander Tanasak Patimapragorn once accused the international community of leaving Thailand alone to deal with the Rohingya refugees, (perhaps willingly?) oblivious to the fact that Thai authorities have largely denied international aid and refugee organizations access to them. So the question Thailand has to ask itself for the coming year is not what the world can do for Thailand, but rather what Thailand can do to help the Rohingyas?

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?

Thai navy sues journalists after reports on Rohingya trafficking

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 19, 2013 The Royal Thai Navy has filed defamation charges against international journalists for their reports on authorities being involved in human trafficking of ethnic Rohingya refugees. The move sends a chilling reminder to the media about the dismal state of press freedom in Thailand, the easy exploitation of flawed laws and how little outside inquiry Thailand's military tolerates.

Ever since the deadly persecution of the Rohingya people, an ethnic minority denied citizenship in Burma, in 2012 that caused tens of thousands to flee, mostly on frail and overcrowded vessels on the Andaman Sea, the plight of Rohingya refugees in Thailand has been well documented in the past 12 months*. Reports of abuse, rape, inhumane detention conditions and human trafficking have persistently accompanied the coverage of the refugees in Thailand. A deadline imposed by the Thai government to find and transfer the refugees to another country passed in July with no results and further developments being made, leaving the Rohingyas in legal limbo.

While this story is almost exclusively covered in foreign media and mostly met with apathy in the mainstream Thai media, Phuket Wan has been regularly reporting and unearthing accounts of the mistreatment of Rohingya people, including selling to human traffickers by Thai authorities. In July, Phuket Wan was quoting from an investigative special report by the Reuters news agency that accuses certain sections of the Royal Thai Navy of actively taking part in the smuggling of Rohingya refugees.

This was followed up by Reuters with another special report in December that also carries "startling admissions" by the DSI chief Tharit Pengdit and the Deputy Commissioner General of the Royal Thai Police Maj-Gen Chatchawal Suksomjit over the existence of illegal camps in southern Thailand. In the aftermath of the coverage, both the United Nations and the United States have called on Thailand to investigate the findings of the Reuters report.

This is how the Royal Thai Navy responded to these accusations:

A captain acting on behalf of the Royal Thai Navy has accused two Phuketwan journalists of damaging the reputation of the service and of breaching the Computer Crimes Act. Two other journalists from the Reuters news agency are expected to face similar charges shortly.

The Phuketwan journalists, Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, denied the charges and were fingerprinted when they presented themselves today at Vichit Police Station, south of Phuket City. They are due to reappear on December 24. The pair face a maximum jail term of five years and/or a fine of up to 100,000, baht

It's believed to be the first time an arm of the military in Thailand has sued journalists for criminal defamation using the controversial Computer Crimes Act. (...)

In response to presentation of the charges today, Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian issued the following statement:

(...) We are shocked to learn now that the Navy is using a controversial law to sue Phuketwan for criminal defamation. The allegations in the article are not made by Phuketwan. They are made by the highly-respected Reuters news agency, following a thorough investigation. (...)

The Rohingya have no spokesperson, no leader, but through Phuketwan's ongoing coverage, the torment of these people continues to be revealed. Their forced exodus from Burma is a great tragedy. Yet how they are treated in the seas off Thailand and in Thailand remains a constant puzzle.

We wish the Royal Thai Navy would clear its reputation by explaining precisely what is happening to the Rohingya in the Andaman Sea and in Thailand. By instead using a controversial law against us, the Navy is, we believe, acting out of character.

We can only wonder why a good organisation finds it necessary to take such unusual action instead of making a telephone call or holding a media conference.

"Navy Captain Uses Computer Crimes Act to Sue Journalists for Criminal Defamation", Phuket Wan, December 18, 2013

This is an extremely worrying development. The navy is not only using the libel law against the two journalists, but also the controversial Computer Crimes Act of 2007 (CCA). Thanks to the CCA's flawed and vague wording, it opens up the possibility for arbitrary charges against all online users to be held liable not only for their own content, but also for the content of third parties that the user is hosting. Recently, the Appeal Court upheld the suspended sentence against Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the webmaster of the news website Prachatai, for not deleting web comments deemed lèse majesté quickly enough.

Another aspect is that it also shows that allegations of human trafficking are hardly being investigated, let alone by somebody outside of the military. After allegations of human trafficking against army officers earlier this Januaryan inquiry found the men at no fault but they were transferred out to another region nonetheless.

Earlier this year, we blogged about the then-defence minister Sukumpol Suwanatat's "fear of too much press freedom" and this move again reflects the armed forces' self-image that is still being maintained until today: an essential part of the Thai power apparatus that is not to be questioned or criticized, especially by outsiders.

*NOTE: The plight of the Rohingya refugees will be highlighted as part of a special 2013 year-in-review series starting December 26, 2013 on Siam Voices.

Thai minister accuses Rohingya refugees of 'feigning pitifulness'

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 21, 2013 In the past year an estimated that over 35,000 Rohingya - an ethnic minority group from Burma who are denied citizenship there and targeted in deadly persecution (partly incited by Buddhist monks) - fled on often overcrowded and frail boats to the Andaman Sea. They often land on Thailand’s shorelines instead of their preferred destinations Malaysia or Indonesia. Thailand recognizes them as illegal immigrants rather than as refugees, denying them the right to seek asylum.

The ongoing plight of ethnic Rohingya in Thailand is bleaker as ever, as about 2,000 of them are still awaiting their fate in detention centers across Thailand. A six-month deadline to find third-party countries to take them passed in late July without any results, leaving them in legal limbo.

We reported on the detention conditions the Rohingya refugees are facing in often overcrowded holding cells and their vulnerability to human traffickers earlier in July. Recently, Channel 4 News exposed that human traffickers are maintaining a "number of secret prisons" on the southern Thai island of Tarutao, seemingly under the radar of Thai authorities. There have been also several reports of attempted and successful escapes of Rohingya detainees (e.g. July 31, August 12). In some areas, there have been plans to improve conditions:

On August 9, the Thai minister of social development and human security, Paveena Hongsakula, told the media that the detention and trafficking of Rohingya in Thailand were serious human rights issues. Yet at a cabinet meeting four days later she proposed sending them to refugee camps, a plan that reportedly has the backing of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Foreign Affairs Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul. (...)

The Thai authorities have also discussed proposals to create alternative centers for the Rohingya or expand the capacity to hold Rohingya at existing immigration detention centers in Songkhla, Ranong, Prachuab Khiri Kan, and Nongkhai provinces.

"Thailand: Release and Protect Rohingya ‘Boat People’", Human Rights Watch, August 20, 2013

However, such proposals were met with objections by local residents.

Just on Tuesday, 86 Rohingya escaped from an immigration detention center in the southern Thai province of Songkhla. According to the local police commander the refugees "used blades to cut through iron bars and hacked at cement walls before disappearing into nearby rubber plantations," but gave no details where these tools came from and why of all places they went to a nearby rubber plantation.

Also, in early August a riot broke out at a detention center in Phang Nga Province resulting in an 8-hour standoff (that could have escalated into something much worse) after authorities wouldn't allow the detainees to perform prayers marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

That's where Deputy Interior Minister Wisarn Techathirawat of the Pheu Thai Party went to on Tuesday to assess the conditions at the detention facility. And then he said this...

Deputy Interior Minister Wisarn Techathirawat says the presence of the media encourages Rohingya refugees to “act-up in front of the camera” in order to get sympathy. Mr Wisarn was at the Phang Nga Immigration center yesterday to inspect the facility, following a Rohingya riot there earlier this month.

“The media often knows that the Rohingya are arriving even before the police do,” he said. “And when the media are present, the Rohingya cry and put on a performance designed to get sympathy. When the media are not present, they act normally, and even seem to enjoy their interaction with the officers.”

The "feigned pitifulness" of the Rohingya reported by the press is giving Thailand a bad name, Mr Wisarn said.

"Rohingya play 'pity card' for media: Deputy Interior Minister", Phuket Gazette, August 20, 2013

And this...

The deputy interior minister expressed fears that the asylum-seekers would harm locals and discourage tourists from visiting Thailand.

"The monsoon season will be over in two months and more boat people will come. We've asked the UNHCR to help fix this problem," Wisarn Techathirawat, deputy interior minister, told Reuters, adding the UN agency only took on a few asylum-seekers. "The rest of the burden is left to us."

"Muslim Rohingya asylum seekers escape Thai detention centre", Reuters, August 20, 2013

It is the apathy of the Thai authorities and politicians towards people fleeing from a country that denies them citizenship and leaves them open to violent and deadly persecution; it is impunity of Thai officials involved in human traffickingdeadly shooting of Rohingyas or towing out refugee boats out on the sea again with the engine removed (not only once); it is so-called forensic experts linking Rohingya refugees to the South Thailand insurgency on dodgy grounds; it is regularly rejecting help from international organizations like UN's refugee agency UNHCR and at the same time bemoaning the lack of international help; it is contemptful comments like these from public figures such as this deputy interior minister - THAT is giving Thailand a bad name and NOT refugees seeking help and security!

UPDATED: Thailand moves to deport 800 Rohingya as exodus continues

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 16, 2013 Thailand is moving to deport around 800 Rohingya, underlining the country's continuing policy of refusing Burma's (Myanmar) persecuted ethnic minority asylum status. The refugees were found in an army-led raids on human trafficker camps in the Southern Thai border province of Songkhla last week and are now detained. There are reportedly around 160 children and 30 women among them.

Many witnesses reported inhumane conditions at the trafficker camps, where the refugees received insufficient food and regular beatings. Police have arrested several suspects, including a local mayor.

The Thai Foreign Ministry insisted today that nearly 1,000 Rohingya migrants, arrested last week for illegal entry, will be eventually deported from Thailand.

Sihasak Puangketkaew, permanent secretary for foreign affairs, said legal action against the Rohingya ethnic detainees will be on humanitarian grounds while international organisations have been asked to intervene and assist.

"Foreign Minister: Rohingya migrants must leave Thailand", MCOT, January 15, 2013

The exact number of refugees is unclear. The secretary-general of national security says that 790 are in detention, while other sources claim that the number is 857. They are now currently under the detention of Thai authorities where they are being screened and most likely prepared for deportation.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry's permanent secretary has announced that it will cooperate with international humanitarian agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and Unicef, to aid the refugees and determine their status. However, as of writing...

“UNHCR has asked the Thai authorities for access to recent irregular boat arrivals and people involved in the raids. We have not been granted it yet,” Vivian Tan, the agency’s spokesperson, told AlertNet on Tuesday. (...)

UNHCR has also urged the Thai government to treat them humanely and “not to send them back to a place where their lives and freedoms could be in danger,” she added.

(...) UNHCR told AlertNet late Tuesday that while there has been progress in talks with the government, they are still awaiting access to the latest group of Rohingya detainees.

"UNHCR seeks access to Rohingya detained in Thailand", AlertNet, January 15, 2013

Additionally, Human Rights Watch's Sunai Phasuk has tweeted on Tuesday evening:

On New Year's Day the Thai Navy intercepted a boat with more than 70 Rohingya migrants (including children as young as 3 years old) near Phuket. The Rohingya, who were bound for Malaysia, were at sea for almost two weeks. The usual procedure by Thai authorities is to "help on" these boats on their treacherous journey from Burma to Malaysia or Indonesia through the Andaman Sea by providing medicine, food and fuel on the condition that no one leaves the boat.

If the boat is washed ashore or, like in this case, deemed too unsafe, the refugees are deported back to Burma. However in this case, amid protests by activists, the Thai authorities instead put these refugees back on another boat(s).

Thailand has been often at the center of controversy in the past concerning their handling of Rohingya refugees. Reports (not in Thai media) of boats being towed out to sea again and set adrift (sometimes removing the engine) put the Thai authorities in a very bad light.

Sectarian violence flared up between the Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state in Burma last year. The clashes, instigated by nationalists, have killed at least 88 and displaced 100,000 more. According to a phone interview with Human Rights Watch, there are at least "one or two boats passing by the Thai coastline every day" during this time of year. In fact, Phuket Wan reports:

NINE boats containing about 1000 Rohingya men, women and children are off the coast in the Phuket region now, maritime authorities said on Monday. Two boats that were being ''helped on'' are now being brought to shore, the authorities said.

"'1000 Rohingya' Off Phuket as Scale of Trafficker Trade is Revealed", Phuket Wan, January 14, 2013

The Thai state usually regards the Rohingya not as persecuted refugees, but rather as illegal economic immigrants, therefore constantly refusing to grant them asylum. Deported Rohingyas are in danger of falling into the hands of people smugglers, who extort an enormous sum of money for transportation to Malaysia and are often forced into labor to pay off their debts.

At the same time, Thailand is facing international pressure as the United States State Department has put the country under close scrutiny over its efforts to combat human trafficking:

Thailand has been on a Tier 2 Watch List status – the second-worst rating – for three consecutive years for not fully complying “with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

A downgrade to Tier 3 – the same level with North Korea - could result in non-tariff sanctions being imposed on Thailand.

"UNHCR seeks access to Rohingya detained in Thailand", AlertNet, January 15, 2013

That also probably explains why the National Security Council has reportedly requested a "special budget from the government" to deal with the Rohingya migrants and "for Thailand’s image in the global community" (source) - because apparently this is as important for the Thai authorities as tending to those in dire need of help.

UPDATE [January 16, 2013 at 16.30h]:

Thai authorities have granted  the UNHCR access to the migrants. UNHCR spokeswoman Vivan Tan told Siam Voices that this move is "a positive step at the moment." While no specific date has been agreed on yet, the organization is hopeful to make a first early assessment as soon as possible. According to Tan, there's a possibility that not all about 800 persons are all Rohingya, as it has been widely reported, hence why it is important to get this first access in order to "talk who they are, verify themselves and ask them about their background." The agreement in principle only at the moment as details about the extend of assessments are still being worked out with the authorities.