Thailand's recent effort to uncover a massive human-trafficking network is a step in the right direction, according to rights groups, which have long criticized the kingdom for failing to combat the thriving people-smuggling business within its borders.
But anti-trafficking activists say more regional efforts are needed to help end what appears to be a multimillion-dollar, transnational smuggling syndicate.
Over the past week, police in southern Thailand announced the discovery of three abandoned jungle camps, including one containing a mass grave with 26 bodies. The camps, located along the Thai-Malaysian border, are thought to be a part of a vast criminal network that holds for ransom ethnic Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh and smuggles them into Thailand and Malaysia.
So far, three local Thai officials and a Myanmar national have been arrested as part of the investigation, which was carried out with the assistance of Freeland, an NGO that focuses on human slavery and wildlife trafficking. In a statement, Freeland provided new details about the way in which traffickers kidnapped the Rohingya from Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state, where the minority group has faced religious persecution and discrimination.
The traffickers used the promise of jobs in Thailand to lure 300 to 400 Rohingya at a time to board a boat that was anchored off the coast of Sittwe. The Rohingya were then placed in what were essentially detention camps in southern Thailand and told that their families must pay up to $3,000 for their release. Those whose families could not afford the ransom were sold to Malaysian farmers for $1,000 per person.
Information from cellphones
Freeland director Steve Galster told VOA that local Thai officials, who in January asked for help with the case, wanted assistance with extracting information from cellphone SIM cards taken from suspected human traffickers. After spending months going through massive amounts of phone data, Galster said, investigators were able to "size up some key figures" and locate corresponding bank records.
"The phone data helped them narrow in on financial transfers, and between the two they were able to piece together the links between the Myanmar traffickers and the Thai traffickers, and what the connections were," he said by phone Wednesday.
Galster said he was encouraged that Thai authorities had reached out for help, saying the case demonstrated their capacity to take on transnational syndicates when they want to do so. "There had been denials [by Thai leaders] in the past about whether Rohingyas were really being trafficked through Thailand or not. And this is an about-face. This is basically saying that, yes, critics were right," he said.
One of the Thai government's biggest critics has been the United States. Last year, the State Department downgraded Thailand to the worst level in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report. This week, it kept up the pressure, calling for a "transparent, credible and expeditious inquiry" and urging Thailand "to investigate fully these deaths and camps, and prosecute those responsible."
There are concerns the highly publicized anti-smuggling campaign may be short-lived, in part because it came just ahead of the State Department's next human-trafficking report, which will be published in June. Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, which monitors the smuggling of people from western Myanmar and Bangladesh, said it was possible that the campaign represented a "kind of public relations exercise."
"Thailand wants to see its image improve in the international arena, and the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report should be out very soon, so I think they really want to improve their rating," Lewa told VOA.
Lewa, however, said the campaign represented long-needed progress, although she hoped to see additional arrests in the coming days. "This kind of large operation where tens of thousands of people have been transiting to Thailand, it cannot be taking place so quietly without the involvement of very important officials there," she said. "At the moment, the number of officials arrested is not that big."
Rights of Rohingya
Busting smuggling organizations is only one part of the solution, according to Lewa. She said the problem facing Rohingya can be solved only if they are granted political rights in Myanmar or refugee rights in neighboring countries.
"Myanmar is really the one that's created the refugee movement," she said. "And the other countries in the region also have a responsibility because they are creating the smuggling and trafficking market by not providing any way for Rohingya to seek protection and shelter."
Galster said he also would like to see a wider regional effort, because it's not strictly a Thai problem.
"There are clear indications that businesses inside Malaysia were buying slaves at the border," he said. "So now what needs to happen is some good cross-border cooperation between the governments of Thailand and Myanmar and the governments of Thailand and Malaysia to take this data and figure out who was on the know on each side of the border and who was all involved."
Galster also called for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to establish a stronger and permanent countertrafficking enforcement network "so that we can be sharing information all the time and put these traffickers out of business."