BANGKOK - Myanmar is pushing back against a report the U.S. will demote the country to the lowest level on Washington’s human trafficking index.
Placing Myanmar alongside Iran, North Korea and Syria -- among the worst offenders in human trafficking – would be a mistake according to a government official in Naypyitaw.
Later this week, the U.S. State Department is to release its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report and Myanmar could be dropped to the lowest Tier 3.
The Reuters news agency on Tuesday, quoting sources in Washington and Bangkok, reported Myanmar would be demoted to prod it to do more to curb the use of child soldiers and forced labor and amid the continuing widespread persecution of Rohingya Muslims in the Buddhist-majority country.
“Of course we will be disappointed [with a downgrade] as we’ve been working with all the parties” to improve the situation, Aung Lin, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told VOA.
The official added that although he had seen news reports Myanmar faces a demotion on the TIP list there has been no such official notification by the United States.
“We are doing our job and will continue to do it,” Aung Lin added.
Diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon on Tuesday said they would be making no comment prior to the report’s release.
Downgrade can hurt countries in different ways
A Tier 3 ranking is not only an international badge of shame but it can trigger sanctions limiting access to aid from the United States and other countries.
After decades of military rule Myanmar, also known as Burma, now has a democratically-elected government although the military remains powerful.
The country’s de facto leader, state counsellor and foreign minister, Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced criticism since last year’s overwhelming victory of her National League for Democracy (NLD) for not doing enough regarding the plight of the Rohingya.
Myanmar’s government refuses to use the word “Rohingya,” regarding the ethnic group as Bengalis who are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“A downgrade is objectively deserved and sends the right message to the military, which has been using forced labor with impunity for decades,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of the non-profit Fortify Rights.
Timing of report must be considered
The latest TIP report assesses the situation in Myanmar prior to the NLD taking power, “so it would be clear that this year's determination is not about the NLD's performance, but rather the military's,” Smith told VOA.
Speculation about Thailand's ranking
Any changes for the TIP ranking of Thailand, run by a military junta for the past two years, will also be closely noted.
Amid speculation Thailand will be upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List, Smith said “this would objectively be a mistake” as 2015 was a “historically bad year for human trafficking in Thailand.”
Human rights groups criticized the Thai junta’s closure of borders to thousands of survivors of trafficking who were at risk of death at sea and it detained others in what activists characterized as inhumane conditions.
“We've seen some positive developments in Thailand, but most of those developments have occurred in more recent months and would be assessed for next year's TIP report, not this year's,” added Smith, whose organization investigates and documents human rights abuses in Southeast Asia.
Senior U.S. diplomats repeatedly overruled the State Department’s anti-trafficking unit and inflated the grades of 14 strategically important countries, according to a Reuters report last August.
The State Department denied political factors in formulating the list but American lawmakers called for the process to be reformed.