By Kavi Chongkittavorn
First, it demonstrated that a systematic and holistic approach by the Thai government to eradicate one of the most pressing issues facing Thai society today is moving in the right direction.
Second, the tangible outcome can serve as a model for other government agencies facing crosscutting issues to implement their policies in an efficient manner.
But there is still a lot more the authorities concerned can do to take the “zero tolerance for human trafficking” policy to the next level, given the abundant human resources and budget available, not to mention the additional power enshrined in Article 44 of the interim constitution.
After all, they still have to tackle slave labour, sexual exploitation and violation of labour rights in the fishing industry.
The government has already allocated a total of Bt3.208 billion for this year’s operational costs, a 23.88 per cent increase from 2016 of Bt2.590 billion. The budget will be used to prosecute, protect and prevent human trafficking.
Local and international human rights organisations have constantly pointed out, despite Thailand’s current efforts, that human trafficking is still widespread. They highlighted that sexual exploitation and labour rights violations continue unabated, especially among migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia.
Since May 2014, this military government has been trying extremely hard to eliminate the country’s notorious trafficking in persons, which has tarnished Thailand’s image and international profile. After the trial and error efforts over the past two years, the current report on human trafficking, recently submitted to the US State Department, has been the best so far.
Thailand was placed in Tier Three for four consecutive years (2012-2015) due to its lack of minimum standards in fighting human trafficking.
Last year, Thailand was upgraded to Tier Two watch-list in recognition of its efforts in amending laws, protecting victims, prosecuting and convicting perpetrators of these serious crimes.
There has been much speculation about what would be the new US government’s evaluation of Thailand’s current status. From a Thai perspective, the Trump team could be friendlier and more appreciative of the country’s ongoing efforts in combating trafficking – eventually lifting it to Tier Two.
Thailand has been among the most active nations in addressing human trafficking issues in the region. Since 2014, several key laws were amended and enacted to ensure effective implementation of the so-called “holistic approach” to tackle human trafficking.
For instance, after a long delay, the revisions of the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act BE 2551 were completed and approved last week, to add clarity and operational efficiency. Today, it is known as the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act BE 2560.
Last August, the Royal Ordinance concerning rules on bringing migrant workers to work with employers in the Kingdom, came into force. It will punish recruitment agencies and employers who exploit migrant workers and practise forced labour. Thailand is the only country in the region to enact the Beggar Control Act, which it did last July, to regulate the protection and quality of life development for beggars.
Last year, there were 333 trafficking cases were investigated; only 43 involved workers in the fishing industry. The rest were related to sexual (244 cases) and labour exploitation (75). A total of 600 persons were charged along with Myanmar, Cambodian and Lao nationals. The number of human trafficking convictions also increased last year to 268 cases from 205 in 2015. Ninety cases were sentenced to more than 2-year jail terms and 98 cases longer than five years.
The report also stated that from 2013-16, a total of 45 officials were charged for involvement in trafficking in persons.
Last year alone, 10 policemen were charged and under investigation. Altogether, the government has seized over Bt784 million (or US$22.4 million) in assets.
It is interesting to note that in a concerted effort to combat child labour, child pornography and child beggars, the government has set up the Thailand Internet Crimes Against Children (TICAC) task force based on a US model. This ad hoc body comprises 220 police officials who can conduct both field and digital forensic investigations. This task force is also linked to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Homeland Security watchdog, which would provide necessary online database on sexual exploitation and human trafficking cases.
All things considered, several factors have contributed to the improvement in the human trafficking record.
First of all, there is a clear instruction from the top echelon – a strong leadership. Second, there is enough budget to support all activity related to anti-human trafficking. Third, there is efficient coordination and follow-up by concerned authorities among 22 agencies. Fourth, both the Office of the Attorney-General and the courts have improved their filing of cases with quicker process. Fifth, there is better utilisation of the joint inter-agency database system. Sixth, administration of justice has been transparent and forceful. And seventh, severe punishment is provided for perpetrators with a high-risk and no-return proposition. Other factors include assistance from non-governmental organisations and technical know-how and capacity building from friendly countries.
Indeed, if the spirit and work ethics of the government in combating human trafficking can be passed on to other government agencies handling major policies, in particular the situation in southern Thailand, there will be tangible outcomes in a few years.
Certainly, anti-human trafficking efforts must remain vigorous so that Thailand can fulfil all constitutional rights and meet international human rights standards.
Thailand must reclaim its position as a country which respects human rights and human dignity of both its own and others.