BANGKOK - Thailand, stung by US downgrading of the country to Tier 3 of an annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, said on Saturday that it was very disappointed with the move, calling it "most regrettable''.
"It is a very great disappointment for us and we disagree with the ranking,'' acting Foreign Minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow told journalists in Thailand's first official response to the US downgrading, which could draw trade and aid sanctions.
Tier 3 is the lowest possible ranking for national responses to fighting modern day slavery.
"Suppressing human trafficking is the highest priority of the government and we earnestly believe we have made tangible progress,'' he insisted. He said the number of prosecutions had increased to over 400 and convictions to over 200 in the period covered by the report - April 2013 to April 2014.
The TIP report released in Washington on Friday relegated Thailand to Tier 3 after four years on the Tier 2 watchlist. That means Thailand is in the same group as North Korea, Syria and Uzbekistan.
"Anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts remained insufficient compared with the size of the problem in Thailand, and corruption at all levels hampered the success of these efforts,'' the report said.
Malaysia, Venezuela and Gambia were also downgraded to Tier 3.
Countries on the Tier 3 list could face trade sanctions unless President Barack Obama issues a waiver; he has 90 days to decide on this.
"We don't believe it is right for one country to use its own yardstick to evaluate what another country is doing'' Mr Sihasak said. "Thailand, in addition to the highest priority to tackling this problem, is a party to all main international agreements and we have abided by all our obligations.''
"Tier 3 is a category for countries which are doing nothing. We have a national committee, we have a national campaign, we have made progress. We have made an earnest effort and we will continue to intensify this. I don't see this as reflecting what we have done,'' Mr Sihasak said.
''We intend to do more, to intensify our efforts on our own, working with neighbouring countries and the international community,'' he added.
Mr Sihasak told The Straits Times that there was a "sense of frustration" among Thai government agencies. The downgrade ''doesn't encourage us'', he said.
"Some countries don't give a damn about this report. We care. The US should take into consideration the fact that we care.''
Asked where Thailand could do more to address human trafficking, he acknowledged that "I think we could probably do more in the areas of the fishing industry and corruption - but it is not as if we haven't done anything''.
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) - the military junta running the country for a month since seizing power in a coup d'etat on May 22 - also attached the highest priority to addressing human trafficking, he said.
In his weekly televised speech to the nation on Friday night, junta supremo General Prayuth Chan-ocha mentioned human trafficking, vowing a crackdown. Refering specifically to the TIP report, he said problems had ''accumulated for a long time over several governments'' and ''the situation did not clearly improve''.
Asked whether Thailand would request waiving of US sanctions, Mr Sihasak said: "It is up to the US to decide whether they want to continue engaging with Thailand, working together to ensure further progress.
"And it is up to them to consider whether Thailand is an important ally in this part of the world,'' he said.