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Last Friday, Thai police discovered a mass grave near the country’s southern border with Malaysia. Twenty-six bodies have been exhumed from the grave thus far. According to a report in the New York Times, the mass grave was located in an abandoned detention camp that was likely used by human smugglers. These camps, primarily for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, are common in southern Thailand. This one, the Times reported, was “made up of bamboo cages, watchtowers and what the Thai police described as a ‘torture room,’ without giving more details.”
Both Thai officials and many Thai media outlets said that the discovery of the mass grave would mark a dramatic shift in how Thailand addresses trafficking. The Bangkok Post wrote that the mass grave would mark a “turning point” and that the Thai government now must investigate and arrest those responsible for the camp and mass grave. General Udomdej Sitabutr, Thailand’s army chief, told Thai reporters that the grave showed that “it’s time to fix it”---rampant human trafficking networks in the kingdom. Thai media on Monday reported that the police had transferred thirteen police officers who are supposedly going to be investigated for being involved in human trafficking.
But the mass grave was hardly the first indicator that Thailand has a booming human trafficking business, or that some Thai policemen, soldiers, and local officials might be involved in the human trade, which includes the trade in Rohingya refugees. Reuters won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for its extraordinary coverage of how the Rohingya, fleeing persecution in western Myanmar, are trafficked through Thailand, with the cooperation of Thai immigration authorities, Thai police, and other Thai authorities. As the news agency reported in its 2013 article on Rohingya trafficking:
Reuters has uncovered a clandestine policy [by Thai immigration authorities and police] to remove Rohingya refugees from Thailand’s immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea. The Rohingya are then transported across southern Thailand and held hostage in a series of camps hidden near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay thousands of dollars to release them. Reporters located three such camps---two based on the testimony of Rohingya held there, and a third by trekking to the site, heavily guarded, near a village called Baan Klong Tor. Thousands of Rohingya have passed through this tropical gulag. An untold number have died there. Some have been murdered by camp guards or have perished from dehydration or disease, survivors said in interviews.
Reuters’ stories were buttressed by many other credible reports of Thai officials’ involvement in human trafficking, and of generally weak efforts by the national government in Bangkok to address trafficking. The BBC’s Jonathan Head noted, “The Thai authorities have known about these camps for years. Local communities are paid off to keep quiet … Police and other officials get their cut of a business where traffickers pay $20,000 or more for a boatload of migrants, then try to recoup the cost by demanding big ransoms from their families.” The accumulation of evidence led to Thailand being dropped, in 2014, to the lowest ranking in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons global report.
Five years before the Reuters investigation, the acclaimed Thailand blog Bangkok Pundit had commented on reports of trafficking of Rohingya and other types of mistreatment of Rohingya refugees in Thailand. It noted:
Some of the Rohingya boat people who had been towed out to sea by Thai military survived and made it to Indonesia and India after drifting for a number of days without food and water. The number who died we will never know---the internal Thai investigation unsurprisingly found nothing---but from statements given to the Indonesian and Indian governments and to the media by survivors, it appears to be in the hundreds.
Thailand’s version of the FBI responded to Reuters’ reports by saying, “We have heard about these camps in southern Thailand but we are not investigating this issue." When two journalists from Phuket Wan, a blog based on the resort island of Phuket, wrote a story that contained some excerpts from the Reuters report on trafficking, the Thai navy, which was mentioned in the story, responded by filing defamation charges against the Phuket Wan reporters.
However, since the May 2014 coup, the junta-run government has attempted to burnish its image on trafficking. These efforts appear to have been mostly cosmetic.
Will the mass grave really prove a turning point? More Rohingya are taking to the sea every day, as the security environment for them in Myanmar has not improved; the Arakan Project, a human rights group focusing on the Rohingya, says that nearly 60,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar by sea just since October 2014. Out on the water in makeshift boats, the Rohingya are easy prey; in the run-up to Myanmar’s autumn 2015 national elections, the country may become even more unstable, with various political parties competing for the Burman nationalist vote. And Thailand has a long history of announcing investigations into alleged crimes by army officers and police, only to drag the investigation on endlessly, or to transfer suspect officers to what the Thai army and police call “inactive posts” without taking any further action against them.