Myanmar

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.

Burma, Cambodia 'hail' Thai junta: With neighbors like these...

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 5, 2014

For the Thai military, launching a coup in Thailand is one thing, but maintaining it is a whole other task. Probably one of the hardest jobs for the junta is to seek universal legitimacy from the international community - especially since "the transition of power" was very one-sided, to say the least.

So it comes as no surprise that the international reactions to the coup of May 22, especially from the Western world ranged from concern to condemnation (e.g. from the US and Australia) and sanctions against Thailand (from the EU), while China seized the opportunity for increased engagement with the military junta - which also explains why a group of Chinese businessmen were among the first to meet army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha shortly after the coup.

Despite the backlash from the West, the junta claims* some positive acknowledgment from Vietnam, and it appears that other neighboring countries are equally amicable toward the Thai generals - resulting in some utterly bizarre statements:

Thailand’s military on Friday compared its seizure of power in May to restore stability after months of unrest to the brutal crackdown by Burma’s former junta in 1988 to snuff out a pro-democracy movement.

Thailand’s military justified its intervention by the need to restore stability after months of unrest and demonstrations by pro and anti-government protesters.

Perhaps unwittingly, the deputy chief of the Thai junta likened its seizure of power to one of the darkest chapters in the rule of Burma’s junta, its crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1988 when at least 3,000 people were killed. 

“[Burma's] government agrees with what Thailand is doing in order to return stability to the nation. [Burma] had a similar experience to us in 1988, so they understand,” said Tanasak Patimapragorn, supreme commander of Thailand’s armed forces, following a visit to Bangkok by Burma’s army chief General Min Aung Hlaing. (...)

The visit by Burma’s military commander, General Min Aung Hlaing, marks the second by a foreign official since the coup, after that of Malaysia’s defense minister.

-"Thai Junta Compares its Coup to Burma’s 1988 Crackdown", Reuters, July 4, 2014

In a separate meeting with junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Min Aung Hlaing voiced his support for the NCPO solving Thailand's problems. [Burma] understood the situation, said spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukhondhapatipak*.

-"Junta did right thing: Myanmar chief", The Nation, July 5, 2014

*(Side note: Almost all news where foreign envoys supposedly express their "understanding for the political situation in Thailand" are almost exclusively made by a Thai junta spokesman or member - so it's to be taken with a grain of salt.)

A lot can be said about the apparent history-related blind spot not only on the Burmese army's part, but also its Thai counterpart (and we already had a few examples of selective historic knowledge by Thai politicians in the past).

Reuters South East Asia Correspondent Andrew Marshall sums it up best:

In related news, there's also some praise coming from the other side of the Thai border:

In a bid to reinforce the legitimacy of his government amid an ongoing parliamentary boycott by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday looked west for an analogy.

He chose one that didn’t involve a ballot box.

Instead, he pointed to Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order, which was formed after the military’s May coup and immediately began clamping down on dissenting voices, as a suitable parallel.

Both governments had received royal approval, Hun Sen said, and were therefore equally legitimate.

-"Gov’t as legit as junta: premier", Phnom Penh Post, July 4, 2014

Hun Sen's evident approval comes after he criticized the Thai junta for its handling of Cambodian migrant workers amidst a sudden mass-exodus in which an estimated 250,000 Cambodians have returned from Thailand, many out of panic after the junta announced a crackdown on illegal migrant workers and rumors of abuse in police custody.

However, this also follows the release of Veera Somkwamkid, a Thai ultra-nationalist activist who was arrested and jailed in 2011 after illegally crossing the border in late 2010 to claim that a disputed border region belongs to Thailand. Upon Veera's return, 14 Cambodians have been released from Thai custody, but Thai officials have stopped short of stating that this was a prisoner swap.

On one hand, the Thai military states that it is "unfazed" by outside reactions (especially from the West), yet at the same time it seemingly gladly accepts legitimizing praise from other, not-so-democratic countries.

With neighboring rulers like these...!

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 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!

Rohingya stuck in Thai detention vulnerable to traffickers

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 8, 2013 Over 2,000 Rohingya refugees are detained in Thailand as more reports about inhumane conditions, human trafficking and rape surface while efforts to relocate them to another country have so far failed. With a deadline looming very soon, they are now threatened to be stuck in limbo.

The Rohingya, an ethnic minority group denied citizenship and targeted in ongoing deadly persecution in Burma (partly incited by Buddhist monks), have fled on often overcrowded and frail vessels in the Andaman Sea in attempts to reach Malaysia or Indonesia, but more often than not land on Thailand's shorelines or are being intercepted by Thai authorities and either towed out back to sea again (euphemistically labeled by Thai officials as a "help-on"-policy) or deported back to Burma, since the Kingdom regards their status as those of illegal immigrants rather than asylum seekers.

In recent years, there were numerous reports of mistreatment by Thai officials during these "help-on"-procedures such as setting refugee boats adrift on the sea again and sometimes allegedly even removing the engine. Earlier this January, we reported on allegations that officials of the Thai Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) have sold off 74 Rohingyas to human traffickers. Later in March, the Thai Navy faced allegations of shooting and killing as many as 20 refugees that were fleeing in the water from a failed boat-transfer. In both cases there were no impartial investigations and internal inquiries have come up without any results.

Those stranded or rescued by Thai officials - as many as 800 were found in human trafficker camps - are put into detention. According to statistics by Muslim humanitarian groups and published in the Bangkok Post, 2,018 Rohingya refugees are currently detained at 24 stations of vastly different standards, mostly located in the South of Thailand but also some as far as Chiang Rai in the North.

In the late May, Channel 4 News visited the second-largest detention center in Phang Nga and found the conditions to be dismal:

We got a good idea of just how serious these problems are when Channel 4 News accompanied a group of charity workers to an immigration lock-up in a Thai town called Phang Nga. The volunteers, who were members of a local mosque, told us the facility was severely overcrowded and they wanted us to see for ourselves.

(...) We found 276 male Rohingya living in extremely cramped conditions on the second floor – the majority crammed in one of two small “cages”. Inside, there was barely enough room to sit. There were a small number of others living between the two cells suffering from swollen feet and withered leg muscles. The cause was simple – lack of exercise. The men say they haven’t been let out in five months.

(...) This place typically hosts five to 15 men – not 276 – and the smell of sweat, urine and human waste was overpowering. The heat and mosquitos were oppressive and the men seemed to share a deep sense of despondency. A man told my translator that he was ready to tie his clothes together and use them as a rope to hang himself. In another conversation captured on film an inmate told us he had “nothing to live for”. Our translator was forced to plead with them not to kill themselves.

"The plight of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims in a Thai camp", by John Sparks, Channel 4 News, May 31, 2013

The report goes on to say that the Thai authorities are aware of the problems and "alternative arrangements are being identified." How these alternatives look (e.g. additional buildings) was not said. However, in some areas, plans for the construction of additional facilities were met with protests of locals.

In other locations, there are reports of female refugees falling victims to human traffickers and sexual assault:

[H]uman traffickers – both Rohingya and Thai – were able to gain access to the shelter in Phang Nga province soon after a group of about 70 Rohingya women and children arrived there in January. Korlimula, who was identified to Human Rights Watch as working for a Rohingya-Thai human trafficking gang, told Narunisa that he would reunite her with her husband in Malaysia for a fee of 50,000 baht (approximately US$1600).

On May 27, Korlimula helped Narunisa and her two children to escape from the shelter and took her to meet with other associates. Narunisa and her children were put on a pickup truck driven by a man, whom she later learned is a police officer at Khao Lak police station in Phang Nga province. The three of them were taken to six hideouts in the province, and in each case locked up against their will. At the final hideout on Koh Yipoon Island in Phang Nga province’s Kuraburi district, Korlimula repeatedly assaulted and raped Narunisa at knifepoint over the course of three days, from June 9 to 11. After that, Narunisa and her children were dumped on the street in Kuraburi district and the three of them made their way back to the shelter on June 18. Narunisa reported the rape case at Kuraburi district police station on June 18, and then filed a formal complaint against Korlimula on June 21.

"Thailand: Traffickers Access Government-run ‘Shelter’", Human Rights Watch, June 27, 2013

Such cases reveal that some human trafficker rings are colluding with local officials and politicians. Bangkok Post reports that both the human trafficker and the police officer have been charged.

The refugees have been waiting for at least six months, while Thailand is trying to find another country to take them in, but has yet to find one. The deadline of July 26 is running out, but the question about the fate of the more than 2,000 Rohingya refugees stuck in a legal limbo in Thailand's detention centers remains unanswered.