This article is part of “Southeast Asia: Refugees in Crisis,” an ongoing series by The Diplomat for summer and fall 2015 featuring exclusive articles from scholars and practitioners tackling Southeast Asia’s ongoing refugee crisis. All articles in the series can be found here.
In May 2015, gruesome mass graves were unearthed in southern Thailand, revealing scores of bodies belonging to mostly Rohingya refugees who had been victimized by human traffickers. The discovery placed Thailand under a global spotlight exactly at the time when the country was seeking to be upgraded by the United States in terms of its handling of human trafficking.
Seeking to distance itself from any guilt, the ruling regime charged at least 85 persons with complicity in the scandal, including Army General Manas Kongpaen. Thailand also agreed to offer humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees and convened a regional conference on Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants, which indirectly blamed Myanmar. Though Myanmar bears primary responsibility for the Rohingya crisis, Thailand’s own deplorable treatment of the Rohingya must immediately come to an end. The fact remains: the line between security officials and human traffickers in Thailand has become increasingly blurred. And Thailand has yet to be held accountable.
The Rohingya are a Muslim people of southwestern Myanmar, though neither Myanmar state authorities nor most Burmese accept their right to legally exist as citizens. The Burmese military practiced ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in 1978, 1992, and 2012-2013. Rohingya have also suffered from violent attacks by Buddhist Burmese nationalists and suffer discrimination throughout Myanmar.
Waves of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh. But by 2006, Bangladesh was overcrowded with refugees and many Rohingya decided to go to Malaysia instead. Doing so meant transiting through Thailand. Getting through Thai territory by land or water was difficult. First, human traffickers which brought most Rohingya through Thailand, were exploitative. Second, there were numerous health challenges. Third, Thailand’s military has been waging a heightened war against a Malay-Muslim insurgency in far southern Thailand, the very area Rohingya needed to transit to reach Malaysia. Given the insurgency, the mindset of many Thai security officials was hostile toward southern Thai Muslims. It was not difficult to extend that paranoia to the Rohingya, who Thai soldiers feared might join the revolt. Thus, Thai army and navy patrols routinely detained Rohingya refugees and either deported them back to Myanmar or — less frequently — helped their boats on to Malaysia.
Then Malaysia shifted its policy, refusing to register any new Rohingya. Those transiting through Thailand now found themselves stranded there, with others continuing to arrive. In 2008, Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej proposed sending all the Rohingya to a draconian immigration facility on a deserted Thai island. Though the idea was never implemented, the policies Thailand has used are not much better.
Thailand has never signed the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 protocol. As such, the country has no specific international legal responsibility to safeguard refugees or asylum seekers. Nevertheless, Thailand has signed other human rights agreements, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which arguably cover the rights of stateless Rohingya in Thailand. But a lack of enforcement has made these instruments ineffective. This has meant that Thailand has dealt with Rohingya as it sees fit.
Turning a blind eye to any international obligations to respect refugee rights, the Thai military initiated a new “pushing out” policy in which Rohingya, after surviving the harrowing ordeal of reaching Thailand across the sea, were now held on a remote island for two days. Then boatloads of them were towed out to international waters, their engine would be cut, and they would be set adrift with little food or water. The policy — which saw hundreds of Rohingya bodies later wash up on Asian beaches — was meant to deter potential Rohingya refugees from coming to Thailand. The strategy was tasked out to Gen. Manas Kongpaen of the Thai military’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC). Manas himself had gained infamy for participating in the massacre of Thai Muslims at Krue-Se mosque in 2004, though a court later acquitted him of any wrongdoing.
Under the Abhisit government, the “push-back” program was suspended, and instead a program of deportation or the indefinite detention of Rohingya was implemented. Whilst not as immediately condemnable as the “push-back” program, it was only facilitated by the Thai police joining forces with human traffickers. Deportation back to Myanmar has only led to imprisonment by Myanmar authorities, escape back into Thailand, or, most commonly, the handing over of Rohingya to human traffickers who smuggle Rohingya to Malaysia. Since most Rohingya could not pay the traffickers, they were forced into human slavery to work off the debt. Such a policy financially benefited local Myanmar security officials and smugglers alike while providing a clandestine solution to the returning Rohingya deportees.
In 2013, a Reuters investigation revealed that Thai police had admitted an official Thai policy of removing Rohingya detainees using a similar alliance between Thai security forces and human traffickers. As the policy was official, it had to have been sanctioned by Thailand’s senior-most security officials on down. It commenced following the 2012-2013 Myanmar state atrocities against Rohingya, which had exacerbated the latest Rohingya exodus abroad, including to Thailand. The strategy amounted to this: Thai authorities sold Rohingya detainees to traffickers who spirited them through a series of savage jungle camps (involving regular beatings and rapes) close to Malaysia, where relatives of the Rohingya had to pay ransom for them. Those who could not be ransomed were sold as slaves, or they died. A related report revealed that the Thai Navy had beaten Rohingya boatpeople and sold them to traffickers.
This relationship between the authorities and the traffickers is officially sanctioned. In light of this, the May 2015 discovery of mass graves finds not only alleged collaboration between Thai security officials and traffickers but instead growing evidence that in several cases the soldiers and traffickers are one and the same. Thus, it appears that the trafficking of Rohingya, for certain Thai security officials, represents not only a way to rid Thailand of detainees considered a security threat but also a means of making profits from refugee misery connected to human smuggling and slavery.
While initial responses by Thailand to the 2015 Rohingya crisis appeared to be positive, Thai security policymakers must answer some probing questions. First, do the mass graves not represent the logical result of Thai security forces’ intentional policy of trafficking Rohingya? Second, how could the Thai state allow Gen. Manas Kongpaen, earlier implicated in the Krue Se massacre, to locally lead ISOC’s Rohingya policy from 2008 until 2015? Third, as the current defense minister is the same as in 2009 — Prawit Wongsuwan — why was he not earlier successful in stopping human rights violations by Thai security officials against Rohingya? Fourth, if such trafficking was an intentional Thai policy, to what extent is Thailand guilty of crimes against humanity?
With global attention focused on Myanmar’s horrendous mistreatment of Rohingya, Thailand’s own human rights violations against them — though occasionally surfacing in public — have persisted as a secret sideshow. That sideshow has perpetuated a brutal system of human trafficking and prevented the Rohingya — currently Southeast Asia’s most brutalized ethnic minority — from reaching political asylum abroad. It is high time for Thai policymakers, with sufficient support from international actors, to either allow Rohingya at least the temporary right to asylum or ethically assist in moving Rohingya on to third countries.