Indonesia Rescues 20 From Traffickers in Myanmar

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ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

Indonesia Rescues 20 From Traffickers in Myanmar

Jakarta bans its migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

Indonesia Rescues 20 From Traffickers in Myanmar

The border gate separating Myawaddy, Myanmar from Mae Sot, Thailand.

Credit: Flickr/James Antrobus

Indonesia has rescued 20 of its nationals from human traffickers in Myanmar and signaled it is fed up with the scourge, announcing that the conflict-ridden country, alongside Cambodia and Laos, will no longer be destinations for its migrant workers.

Benny Rhamdan, head of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Protection Agency, told the official Antara news agency that any deployment of migrant workers to those three countries is now illegal.

Hundreds of Indonesians have been repatriated from around the region in recent years after they were lured and trafficked into “slave compounds” with false promises of high-paid jobs but found themselves trapped and forced to work an array of online scams.

“We can see those, who departed after being lured by high salaries, now regret it. They are now protesting because they receive nothing from what they promised,” he said. “They are confined, and their travel documents are held by those who take them there, by the syndicates.”

That decision won’t please Cambodia, which emerged as an epicenter for organized crime syndicates that established human trafficking networks and slave compounds during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in Sihanoukville on the south coast.

As the pandemic subsided most of those operations shifted to Myanmar, where traffickers are taking advantage of the civil war and can operate with some degree of impunity. Laos has also witnessed a “marked uptick” in trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department.

Last month, a video made by dozens of Indonesians trapped in Myanmar and pleading for help generated a public outcry after it went viral on social media. One victim said they were tortured when they failed to reach work quotas. This included beatings and electrocutions.

One victim described their lives in a war zone as “miserable and threatened,” adding they had spent eight months in Myanmar after being shunted from one company to another. That led to last weekend’s rescue operation.

Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said its embassy in Yangon, with help from local networks, had coordinated in securing the release of 20 victims from Myawaddy township and brought them to the Thai border near Mae Sot on Saturday.

The area includes the casino at Shwe Kokko, which has seen heavy fighting in recent months between the junta and an alliance of forces including the Peoples Defense Force – the armed wing of the National Unity Government – and the Karen National Liberation Army.

In February, ten people – Indonesians, Indians, and Nepalese – were freed from a compound in territory controlled by the United Wa State Army in Myanmar’s Shan State with the help of foreign-based NGOs, and Interpol officials from ASEAN, Indonesia, India, and Myanmar.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told a press conference on Friday that her government was working to help free its trafficked nationals in Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and the Philippines.

She also said that Indonesia would raise the issue as this year’s chair of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) after President Joko Widodo ordered an “all out” effort to help rescue the victims.

ASEAN leaders will hold the scheduled summit and related meetings this week in Labuan Bajo on Flores island, when the ban on Indonesia’s migrant workers in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar should be discussed and some clarity sought.

Rhamdan added that placement for migrant workers in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar had been trending for the last two years, but he reminded people seeking jobs “that the three countries are not the destinations for their placement.”

He said his government must rescue its citizens even if they left Indonesia and worked illegally.

“This country is outstanding because it still upholds the principle that the safety of the people must be the country’s supreme law,” he said.