The right signals to stop the trafficking

Regional leaders inaugurated the Asean Community at the end of 2015 to bring their 10 countries closer – not only for economic integration, but also on security-political issues as well as social and cultural affairs. One test for this dream of Community is whether the lives of ordinary citizens will improve, and one hard issue will be the ongoing tragedy of trafficking in persons.

Last year, mass graves were discovered along the border of Thailand and Malaysia, containing the remains of over 200 people. The cases are still under investigation, but the victims are believed to be Rohingya from Rakhine State in Myanmar who were kidnapped or illegally trafficked before being abandoned and killed.

Beyond the headlines about the Rohingya, millions of victims are being trafficked across Asean to work in different sectors – including the sex industry, fishing and on plantations. Accurate figures for the region are debatable but, for Asia-Pacific, the International Labour Organisation estimates that there are now more than 11.7 million victims of forced labour. A much stronger effort is needed to stem the illegal trafficking in persons.

This month, countries will submit statements about the steps they have taken to the US State Department annual trafficking in persons (TIP) report. This grades countries on a four-category list, according to the extent of the problem and the efforts being taken. To date, most Asean member states occupy the middle ranks, signalling that they fall short of the US’s standards.

The Rohingya issue places a spotlight on Myanmar, the source country, as well as Malaysia and Thailand. Each has fared very differently in the lens of American scrutiny, and not always for good reason.

The TIP Report and Asean’s dilemma

Myanmar has yet to be assessed and graded by the US. There is justification for this oversight given the country has been in transition to full democracy. But after the historic election result that brought the National League of Democracy to power in November, the government will now be expected to address the issue more seriously at its root.

A discrepancy between the TIP grades handed to Malaysia and Thailand last year prompted concerns that extraneous factors are affecting Washington’s judgement. The US promoted Malaysia from Tier 3 despite that country being a location for the Rohingya tragedy.

True, Malaysian authorities have upped their efforts to combat traffickers. In 2014, they launched 186 investigations into trafficking cases, more than double the number the year before. Some 54 cases were prosecuted in court. However, the Thais showed as much or even more effort.

Suspicions were raised that Washington was kinder to Malaysia because it joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement that President Obama has been pushing as a centrepiece of engagement with the region. If the TIP Report had left Malaysia in Tier 3, the country’s poor rating on human trafficking would automatically have prevented the Obama administration from securing “fast-track” approval of the TPP through Congress.

Political expedience and the TPP’s importance may therefore have been the critical factors, rather than Malaysia’s efforts to combat trafficking. Political factors may have also played a role in the case of Thailand, but in the opposite direction.

The country was kept in Tier 3 despite appearing to have taken even more action against traffickers than Malaysia. Authorities in Bangkok investigated some 280 trafficking cases and prosecuted 155 alleged traffickers. Efforts have continued and indeed strengthened in the past months with the arrest and indictment of more suspects – including a senior Army general, alleged to be a lynchpin in trafficking.

Systemic changes have been made. The Prayut Chan-o-cha government has created a high-level inter-ministry taskforce and increased the budget to tackle the issue. Laws have been streamlined to allow for cases to be prosecuted more quickly and to increase punishments against those found guilty. Efforts in the fishing industry, heavily implicated for forced labour, have put in place monitoring systems on board vessels and thorough checks on vessels when they go in and out of port.

Thai efforts seem at the very least on a par with Malaysia’s, leading critics to speculate that the US Trafficking in Persons Report was shaped by political considerations as well as objective assessments. After all, Thai-US relations have been under strain since the military coup that brought the current administration to power in Bangkok.

Tackling trafficking in the region is not an easy task. There are vested interests within the region that drive the trade in persons. Concern and scrutiny from the international community is needed to urge on reform.

However, Asean member states should not simply act in order to secure a stamp of approval from Washington. Nor should the United States or others in the international community leverage the issue for extraneous political reasons. Even-handedness and cooperation, rather than biased views, will be key to unlock this important and complex problem.

Asean countries should take the initiative to solve the issue for their own people, as a flagship in the human dimension of their Community-building project. Only then can the US and other major powers truly support Asean on the issue and work collectively to address the responsibilities of source, transit and destination countries. – Simon Tay, Aaron Choo, Shangari Kiruppalini, Special to The Nation January 25, 2016

Simon Tay is the chairman of the think-tank Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), and associate professor at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. Aaron Choo and Shangari Kiruppalini, are respectively, assistant director and policy research analyst at the SIIA.