If Thailand were in the Middle East it would currently make a very good fit for the headlines coming out of that troubled region. The political direction of the country has been trending the wrong way since at least 2006, when Thailand’s then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was forced out by the first unconstitutional change of government in fifteen years. The list of troubles is long: a long-serving but ailing monarch, a coup-prone army, an Islamist terrorist problem. Another, more recent entry is a blacklisting by the U.S. State Department over the reluctance of Thai authorities to crack down on the issue of forced migrant labor in its workforce. The bad publicity resulting from the recent discovery of mass graves on the Thai-Malaysian border has made global headlines and Thailand’s military government gives the impression it is struggling to address the issue substantively.
Human trafficking and the attendant exploitation of refugees and economic migrants long predates the current military regime in Thailand and is a serious governance issue. The Global Slavery Index places it near the top of its rankings for countries failing to combat slavery, at 44th out of 167 states for which data is available. The organization estimates that half a million people in Thailand are held in bondage, mostly in the garment, fishing, and sex industries. In 2014, the U.S. relegated Thailand to it’s tier three blacklist of countries failing to tackle the slave trade after successive warnings went unheeded.
The slavery issue is partially the fault of geography: By land Thailand borders several deeply impoverished countries, including Laos and Cambodia, but also wealthier Malaysia, a popular destination for migrants. It also lies on the sea-routes for people-smuggling rings operating from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Relatively well off but politically turbulent, the troubled southeast Asian state is a source, destination, and transition country for modern slavery. The trade victimizes Thai citizens as well as foreigners. Nor is Thailand unique in its neighborhood in having a slavery problem. As the Thai government has cracked down in the south, local papers have reported allegations that criminal syndicates have simply relocated their camps to the Malaysian side of the border.
Malaysia, too, was downgraded by the U.S. last year over its reluctance to act on forced labor and is ranked 56th by Global Slavery Index. Yet World Bank figures show GDP per capita in Malaysia stood at $10,500, nearly twice neighboring Thailand’s. However while labor exploitation is a regional problem across southeast Asia, Thailand’s problems are exacerbated by the unwholesome behavior and excessive political influence of its security services. In particular the weakness of the Thai political system in tackling the trade can be tied to military interference in the central government, the convergence of corruption with geography in the north and on the southern borders, and the presence of a separatist insurgency in Thailand’s southeastern border provinces. In the “deep south” ethnic tensions, a corruptible military’s heavy hand and geographic remoteness make an ideal sanctuary for criminal organizations. While trafficking routes also exist in the non-Muslim southwest the conflict in Thailand’s deep south provides an ideal distraction all along the frontier.
On the southeastern border the army and police have split priorities, with tackling local Islamist terrorist groups often taking precedent over organized crime. The southeastern provinces near Malaysia have never been entirely absorbed into the Thai state and several still contain local majorities of ethnic (Patani) Malays. Thailand only formally took control of the area in 1909, when the present demarcation between Thailand and Malaysia was ratified. Social attitudes in Thailand’s central provinces towards the less developed border regions fuel local resentments all around Thailand, but in the deep south violent separatism has long been a problem for Bangkok. The present insurgency is particularly difficult to end because the estimated 9000 or so fighters are fragmented, largely self-supporting and have no common political agenda. While their weapons and tactics are unsophisticated from a military point of view, almost 6000 deaths have been recorded since serious fighting resumed in 2001. Rights groups are reported as estimating that Bangkok has committed 150,000 troops to patrol the remote region for insurgents, amid rivalry with the police service.
While the Thai military and police have a heavy presence in these areas to combat Islamic insurgents this fact has proved no barrier to people smuggling, judging by the numbers of migrant camps recently uncovered in the region. Songkhla province, where one mass grave of migrants was found in May, is a mixed Thai-Malay area that acts as one major hub for human trafficking routes moving people north and south. To the east it borders the restive provinces of Yala and Pattani, which together with neighboring Narathiwat make up the heartland of the insurgency against the Thai state. Yet Songkhla, Yala and Narathiwat all contain smuggling routes that straddle the official border despite the heavy security presence.
In fact there is widespread social collusion with the people-smuggling trade in many isolated areas, with trafficking groups often able to rely on collaboration with both coastal and border communities for their infrastructure, local camp guards, and supplies. Inevitably this extends up to include an area’s provincial authorities, without whose cooperation the smuggling rings would have to adopt a much lower profile. Members of the Thai security services and local officials have been detained in the past for collaborating with human trafficking groups and even selling fleeing refugees or detained migrants back into servitude. The present crisis was first set in motion when Bangkok actually put words into action and started intercepting smuggling boats carrying mainly Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims at sea. This led to panicked traffickers abandoning their boats and passengers, indicating they never expected to have to seriously conceal their illicit activities.
The high profile of the resulting humanitarian crisis in turn led to the discovery of coastal smuggling camps with their grisly mass graves. Criminal networks had to abandon other sites across the country but many were already well known to complicit officials. In 2014 Thailand was ranked 85th out of 175 countries tested for perceptions of corruption by NGO Transparency International. Thailand scored 38 points on their measuring scale, which put it in the bottom half of corrupt states globally, albeit better than neighbors like Laos or Myanmar. Smuggling rings have been disrupted, but the demand for forced labor remains and trafficking networks will soon adapt and restart operations with the tacit cooperation of some state actors if international pressure is removed.
The trafficking issue itself has only become a priority for the central authorities of the military regime because of longstanding American political pressure and short-term bad press. The generals are presently preoccupied with purging Thailand’s body politic of populist threats to Bangkok’s traditional royalist ruling cliques. They do not want the military’s traditional ties to the U.S. or the Thai economy jeopardized while they design a new constitution to enshrine their future political influence. Many of the junta’s reforms have centered around moral causes, both to demonize their domestic opponents for their alleged corruption of traditional Thai culture and to shore up their conservative support base. To do nothing about the misery caused by human trafficking right now would open them up to charges of hypocrisy, but many in Bangkok are quietly wishing the issue would just go away.
Neil Thompson is an editor and freelancer writer on foreign affairs.