Public opinion sinks 'fishing-boat prison idea'

Something unusual happened in Thailand recently: The government canned its plan to send prisoners to work on fishing boats.

It marked one of the few occasions when a policy mooted by the kingdom's military rulers - that went as far as it did - collapsed under the weight of foreign and public disapproval.

The idea first surfaced in November last year and was declared over on Jan 16. In between, a pilot project was launched in Samut Sakhon seaside province, with about 170 prisoners reportedly dispatched on fishing boats.

How did such a controversial idea make it so far?

Possibly through aligned commercial and institutional interests, mixed with a belief - commonly expressed by its military leaders - that good intentions make good justification for policy.

ASEAN's second-largest economy, and the third-largest exporter of seafood in the world, faces a labour shortage on its fishing boats.

The work is so dangerous and back-breaking, and its pay so low, that it is done mostly by migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia. Human trafficking is a problem in this industry.

The Ministry of Labour, under General Surasak Karnjanarat, hit upon a self-declared "creative" idea: Let prisoners work on fishing boats. Only those with less than one year of their sentences left were eligible, and they would have to give their consent to join the scheme.

If enough prisoners consented, the fishing industry would not have to hire so many migrant workers, which would then help solve the trafficking problem that was a stain on Thailand's international reputation.

It was also sold as way to give convicts a second chance, but it reeked of commercial exploitation.

The fishing industry was enthusiastic, calling it a "win-win" solution. Their labour shortage had recently worsened because the post-coup government's efforts to register undocumented migrant workers have led many to try to find better jobs on land.

But the proposal alarmed human rights groups from the start, which made their concerns known to reporters.

It married two deeply notorious sectors: A fishing industry often accused of coercing and ill-treating workers, and an underfunded, overcrowded prison system that still shackles detainees.

Thailand's jails are housing numbers about three times the official capacity, with recorded cases of beatings and sexual abuse.

Still, the authorities kept the idea alive. They launched a pilot project in Samut Sakhon last month. Out of about 2,830 inmates eligible from the local prison, less than 10 per cent took part.

But how could the prisoners' welfare be protected in the high seas? After all, the same isolation experienced by trafficked migrant workers apply to prisoners on these fishing boats.

Earlier this month, this nagging question became more apparent as the Thai government tried to publicise the progress it had made in combating human trafficking. Each press conference it held gave reporters an opportunity to raise a question about the prisoner plan.

It was an inconvenient topic.

The Thai government was preparing to submit a report to the US government, which releases its global trafficking report card every June.

Thailand slid to the lowest tier in the Trafficking In Persons report last year, on account of its weak efforts to combat the scourge. A noted improvement on this count would help ward off the ever-present threat of sanctions by Western importers.

In the end, the international concern proved too damaging.

A coalition of 45 international labour and human rights organisations condemned the scheme in an open letter on Jan 14.

The US-based Time magazine ran a piece with the provocative tagline "the Thai government wants to send chain gangs to sea".

One day after that report, the Foreign Ministry's spokesman Sek Wannamethee said at a press conference: "The mooted idea to let prisoners work on fishing vessels has not been and will not be implemented."

It was a rare victory for human rights groups since the military seized power in May last year.

And no wonder: Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, armed with martial law and backed up by a hand-picked Cabinet, reform council and legislature, takes a dim view of criticism. That same attitude percolates through his team.

While the fishing vessel plan was shelved, other contested schemes have been implemented through sheer military and administrative might.

One example is the project to restore Thailand's forest cover. Since last year, it has evicted illegal resort developments as well as more than 1,000 villagers who human rights advocates say have been living off the land for years.

Thailand will not see an election until at least early next year. While the military maintains its iron grip on power, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are limits to what this power can do.

It may give the junta a free hand to suppress and even banish political opposition.

But it is much less useful in the everyday task of crafting solutions to complex social and economic problems.

On the contrary, says human rights researcher Sunai Phasuk, a "culture of submissiveness" under military rule shields the generals now helming civilian ministries from being challenged by bureaucrats.

In the case of the seafood industry in particular, military rule does not immunise Thailand's globally connected companies from the financial consequences of international disapproval.

The shadow of almost a decade of on-off political conflict looms large in the minds of Thailand's military rulers. Every day now, ditties on Thai television urge citizens to end needless arguments for the sake of unity.

The prisoner fiasco is a timely reminder that the diversity of opinions is just as important an asset. It stops bad ideas from being taken too far.

This article was first published on Jan 26, 2015.
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