News analysis

Politics at play in US report on human trafficking?

Thailand's upgrade is premature, Myanmar's downgrading is long overdue, say activists

There was an air of triumph yesterday when Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai took to the podium to comment on the country's better showing this year in the United States' annual report card on human trafficking.

The kingdom had been upgraded from the bottom tier on Thursday night. But his words were more restrained than his demeanour.

Asked what effect the upgrade would have on Thai-US relations, he said: "We certainly hope that our friends across the Pacific would also appreciate the fact that it (was not really made) strictly in response to the (US Trafficking in Persons) office's judgment."

Thailand is not the only country in the region to downplay the influence or accuracy of the annual Trafficking in Persons report. Still, despite allegations that its rankings are also influenced by Washington's political consideration, the report is widely used as a rough benchmark of a country's anti-trafficking efforts.

While Thailand was this year upgraded from the bottom tier to "Tier 2 watchlist" - which saves it from possible sanctions and puts it on the same grade as Malaysia - Myanmar sank to the lowest ranking of Tier 3. Cambodia improved its position to reach Tier 2, alongside Singapore, whose position remained unchanged.

Activists say Myanmar's downgrade is long overdue while Thailand's elevation is premature.

"There is no conclusive and tangible result from the Thai authorities' effort to address serious trafficking cases," Mr Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Straits Times.

This time last year, the region was still grappling with the shock discovery of shallow graves on the Thai-Malaysian border, a mountainous area that trafficking gangs used to detain migrants from Myanmar or Bangladesh on their way to Malaysia.

A sudden crackdown by the Thai authorities left boatloads of increasingly desperate migrants unable to land in either Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia, until a regional compromise was reached.

Although one three-star army general was arrested and is among the 92 people on trial for human trafficking, it is unclear whether the culprits will eventually face justice when the marathon trial ends in about a year. The lead investigator in the case has sought asylum in Australia, citing fears for his safety.

While the report acknowledged Thailand's establishment of an anti-trafficking prosecution division and court division, as well as tougher laws against the crime, it also noted "official complicity continued to impede progress in combating trafficking".

Over in Myanmar, the threat of being detained and forced to work is not limited to the Rohingya Muslims, who were rejected by the previous government as illegals and who were entangled in the boat crisis last year. More than 140,000 of them still live in squalid camps in Myanmar's Rakhine state after fleeing sectarian violence in 2012.

"The (Myanmar) military, civilian officials, and some ethnic armed groups use various forms of coercion, including threats of financial and physical harm, to compel victims to provide forced labour," the report noted.

Analysts said there is no guarantee the new government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) would make progress on this issue, given its lack of control over the military.

"The military in some cases is operating independently of the NLD government," Mr Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of rights group Fortify Rights, told The Straits Times. "The effort… to combat human trafficking would reflect those power dynamics." 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'Politics at play in US report on human trafficking?'. Print Edition | Subscribe