Thailand 'fails to tackle' human trafficking

Thailand may not be able to escape a second year at the bottom rung of the United States State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report due in June, analysts say.

The reason: Despite a glowing report issued by Thailand on Jan 30 - its highlights were given to the media but the entire report was not publicly released - critics say there is little demonstrable success on the ground in combating human trafficking.

While the government claims success - a string of prosecutions, for instance - its prosecution and conviction rate last year was lower than in the previous year.

The decision on whether to keep Thailand on Tier 3, the bottom rung, is likely to be taken in the larger context of the bilateral political relationship, however.

And if Thailand stays at Tier 3, that presents the administration of US President Barack Obama with a dilemma. Tier 3 triggers certain sanctions, which were waived last year by Mr Obama.

While the more than 180-year-old Thai-US relationship - Thailand is a non-Nato ally of Washington, with the two sides having close security ties - has stayed intact, the mood has turned sour, with Washington critical of the military seizing power in May last year and Bangkok edging closer to China, which was quick to recognise and court the military regime.

The downgrade to Tier 3 last year came after Thailand spent four consecutive years on the Tier 2 watch list, which triggers either a mandatory downgrade to Tier 3 if there is no improvement seen in the country's record, or an upgrade to Tier 2.

The State Department chose to downgrade, citing wide corruption at all levels and poor enforcement and prosecution as impeding progress against human trafficking.

Some activist groups are lobbying for Thailand to remain at Tier 3. On Tuesday, the Britain-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) said Thailand had failed to adequately address key factors perpetuating trafficking and abuse of labour in the fishing sector, including unregulated labour brokers, and the involvement of state officials in trafficking.

"Based on these failures and the ongoing occurrence of systematic trafficking and abuse in the fishing industry throughout the last year, EJF strongly recommends that Thailand remains on Tier 3 in 2015," the group said.

"This will send a clear signal to the government that a substantive programme of action and series of reforms must be implemented to comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking."

Last month, Mr Daniel Russell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, criticised the Thai government's record on human trafficking at a public forum in Chulalongkorn University, leading to the Thai foreign ministry summoning the US charge d'affaires.

Still, "there are a number of people in the US government who want to find a way to get Thailand up to Tier 2 watch list and hold it there", said Mr Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director for Asia of the independent, New York-based Human Rights Watch.

But there was also the risk of that being seen as rewarding Thailand, which could create complacency in Bangkok, he said.

On Jan 30, Mr Songsak Saichuea, director-general of the department of American and South Pacific affairs at the foreign ministry, told journalists: "We are confident we have done a lot and made serious sustained efforts and have produced tangible outcomes and it will continue."

However, Mr Robertson told The Straits Times: "I think probably the State Department is going to say we want to see results."

This article was first published on Feb 19, 2015.
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