Thailand’s Mass Graves: A Turning Point?

Another grim sign that the country has a long way to go to improve its human trafficking record.

Thailand’s Mass Graves: A Turning Point?
Credit: Flickr/Andy Hares

On May 1, police and volunteers exhumed 26 bodies at a mass grave near a suspected human trafficking camp in Sadao district in Songkhla province in southern Thailand, Thai authorities said over the weekend according to media reports.

While the identities of the dead have not been confirmed so far, many trafficked people in the region are Muslim Rohingya coming from western Myanmar and Bangladesh, either escaping persecution or seeking employment in Thailand and Malaysia.

As horrible as this discovery is, it is also far from surprising. Thailand – and that region in particular near the Thai-Malaysian border – has a reputation as both a transit point and destination for human trafficking, and the connections between traffickers and powerful figures in Bangkok have long been suspected. In this case, for instance, it was telling that even senior police officers, including national chief Somyot Pumpunmuang, publicly admitted that were already aware that the area was being used by human traffickers.

The find is nonetheless a blow for the ruling junta, particularly as it comes shortly before the publication of a much-watched U.S. government report on human trafficking. Thailand was downgraded to the third and lowest tier of countries last year, and the government has made removing itself from that category a top priority. General Aek Angsananont, the national police deputy commissioner, repeated to reporters that the government was already taking several steps and that this was a “national agenda.” Yet the mass graves have exposed the lingering challenges despite recent government measures, including launching foreign labor registration and making some legal changes.

“The Songkhla graves are a turning point,” The Bangkok Post declared in a heavy-hitting editorial criticizing government inaction. “This government must bring justice to the dead of Sadao or face unmitigated shame at home and abroad.”

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Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the Thai government has sprung into action. On Monday, Somyot, the police chief, said that three local officials and one man from Myanmar had been arrested and that investigations would be opened into the border guard force which has a base near the site of the mass grave. He also added that the government would conduct patrols of the surrounding area to find any other traffickers’ camps.

But for seasoned observers, the key question is whether these actions amount to short-term fixes designed to salvage the government’s reputation in the wake of this grim finding or whether they will spur a more sustained and systemic effort to tackle this endemic problem once and for all.