NGO: Sharp Drop in Human Smuggling in Andaman Sea Since May 2015

Rescue workers retrieve human remains from graves near a hillside site where shallow graves containing the bodies of 26 people were found in Padang Besar, a district in the southern Thai province of Songkhla, May 13, 2015{AFP}

Pimuk Rakkanam

Illegal boat journeys from Myanmar and Bangladesh have decreased significantly in the year since Thailand launched a crackdown on human trafficking, but the root cause of the problem still festers, an activist fighting for Rohingya Muslim rights told BenarNews in an interview.

A year ago Sunday, the discovery of graves in the jungles of southern Thailand that contained the remains of people trafficked from those two countries triggered a crackdown by the Thai government against human smugglers.

A Thai maritime blockade on people-smuggling boats followed, which in turn precipitated a humanitarian crisis when thousands of desperate Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshi migrants came ashore in neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia.

In Thailand, at least 90 people, including a Thai general, are now on trial on human-trafficking charges.

In an interview with BenarNews, Matthew Smith, an expert on illegal migration in Southeast Asia, says the situation has “improved drastically” in some respects over the past year.

But Smith, director of the NGO Fortify Rights, says officials in Malaysia could do much more to protect victims – and Myanmar’s newly elected government could work to uphold the rights of Rohingyas and solve the root causes of their mass flight.

BenarNews: May 1 marks the anniversary of the discovery of migrants’ graves in Thailand. Can you comment on that?

Smith: We're still concerned that not all of the grave sites have been properly discovered, exposed, and investigated.

I've personally visited grave sites that were not included in the discoveries last year. We have reason to believe bodies litter the terrain in certain parts of Songkhla and other areas in the south. Thai authorities would be wise to continue the investigation, which at present is closed.

We're also concerned with the role of the Malaysian authorities. Thailand has received a great deal of negative attention about human trafficking, and for good reason, but Malaysia's role has somehow been largely ignored.

We were encouraged that Malaysian authorities uncovered a large number of graves, but the authorities there still fail to protect survivors of trafficking. Rohingya are systematically detained in Malaysia. Most are held in squalid detention, deprived of their liberty.

And Malaysian authorities have categorically failed to prosecute any traffickers involved in trafficking Rohingya. Malaysia only prosecuted three traffickers last year. Many traffickers roam free with no fear of justice knocking on their door. That's a problem.

BN: How does irregular migration in the region this year compare with last year?

Smith: The number of departures from Myanmar and Bangladesh decreased significantly this year.

We attribute this to the crackdown against trafficking in Thailand, as syndicates were working closely with many Thai officials, as well as the political changes in Myanmar. Many Rohingya are hoping the new government will improve their situation.

We hope for the same.

BN: Has the situation improved since Thailand launched its crackdown on human smuggling a year ago?

Smith: In some ways, the situation has improved drastically. This time last year there were several thousand Rohingya being held in torture camps in Thailand.

Today, those camps no longer exist. That is undeniably positive. But this time last year there were also thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis stranded at sea, facing death as a direct result of the so-called crackdown.

That was most definitely not a positive development. The ongoing trial against 92 defendants is positive, but it's also beset with problems. Witnesses have been threatened and [have] gone into hiding, and many perpetrators still roam free.

We were very impressed with the new Cabinet Resolution that, if implemented, would grant special protections to survivors of trafficking. It would allow survivors to remain legally in Thailand, it would allow them to work, and it would provide automatic witness protection.

In effect, it would free refugees and survivors from detention. These would be positive steps in the right direction, but the resolution still needs to be implemented. We hope it's not just words on paper.

Also, the root causes of the crisis, including systematic abuses in Myanmar, have not been addressed. Until those abuses are addressed, Thailand will still see refugees arriving on its shores. Until those abuses are addressed, we can't confidently say the situation has improved.

BN: Will the situation for Rohingya Muslims improve under the new government in Myanmar?

Smith: We have hope for the NLD [National League for Democracy] government. The NLD inherited an enormous responsibility to undo the human rights abuses of the past military-led regime.

That is no easy task.

However, the NLD has claimed the Rohingya will not be a priority for its government, and we think that's a mistake. Any failure to adequately address the abuses against Rohingya will backfire and ultimately damage the NLD and Myanmar as a whole. These abuses are bad for the entire country, and the entire region.

This is an international issue. In a worst case scenario, a failure to end the abuses against Rohingya could derail the NLD's other noble efforts to reform the country.

BN: Has Aung San Suu Kyi done anything to help improve the situation?

Smith: One of Suu Kyi's first orders of business was to ensure political prisoners were released. On her second day in office, nearly 200 were released. This was momentous and helped inject hope throughout the population, Rohingya included.

But she has not yet taken a strong position in defense of Rohingya rights, and that's a concern. Any failure to address the abuses risks complicity in those abuses.

The NLD would be well advised to support an independent international investigation into the human rights situation in Rakhine state. Such an investigation would provide the NLD with recommendations to improve the situation, and would help clarify the facts about what is happening in Rakhine state. The facts remain hotly contested.