COMMENTARY Bangkok Post 24 April 2008
Thai police: shamelessly bizarre
Fifty-four people have perished in a horrific example of human trafficking in Ranong. But the police are refusing to touch the human smuggling ring. Guess why? Harsh poverty and political oppression are not the only principal factors for this endless influx of migrant workers from Burma. Equally important is our internal ills. Guess what? Call it state complicity. Call it systemic corruption. Call it heartlessness. Whatever we call it, they are the reasons why this hideous modern slave trade is thriving non-stop in our so-called Buddhist land.
The Ranong tragedy is a case in point. Had it not been for the fatal breakdown in the ventilation system, the cold storage truck that was ferrying 121 workers would have made a safe trip to its destination in Phuket, as it had done countless times before. The local police would have been able to continue pretending – as they always have – that they know nothing about the blatant trade in human beings that is being carried out practically every day right before their eyes.
Though the police cannot now feign blindness to the Ranong tragedy, it is interesting to see how they have reacted in order to protect the hand that feeds them. No, not us taxpayers. Guess who?
If a case is registered as human trafficking, the migrant workers must be treated as victims entitled to state help and compensation. They must also be protected as witnesses so that the authorities can go after the masterminds and those involved in the human trade.
But the police fiercely insist that the Ranong tragedy is not a case of human trafficking, because the workers had not been “lured or forced” to come to Thailand. In addition, the workers were “on the way, without a destination”. Therefore they may not be defined as slave labour. As such, the case can only be processed as one of illegal entry into the country, which means these Burmese migrants must be arrested, fined and deported immediately.
These excuses are maddening not only because they are absurd, but also because they show how the police view us – as nothing less than perfect fools.
How on earth can the police know that the workers were not lured or forced? How does the police define consent?
According to the United Nations’ definition, trafficking in persons covers the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipts of persons by different means, be it through threats, use of force, coercion, abuse of power, or promise of future benefits. Consent is irrelevant when money changes hands for the purpose of exploitation.
In the Ranong tragedy, the truck was headed for Phuket. How can the police claim the lack of a destination? Money changed hands several times in the transport of these workers, to feed the underground labour market run by the local mafia. How can the police say this is not an organised crime of human trafficking?
It is the police’s narrow, self-serving definition of human trafficking that has made Thailand a hub in the smuggling of humans in the region.
Thailand’s promises to the international community to combat human trafficking are empty because the police refuse to change their ways. And why should they? Last month, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej suggested an innovative way to discourage the migration of ethnic Muslims from Burma into Thailand: round them up and leave them on a deserted island.