Soldiers stand guard as forensics teams excavate mass graves 

The full horror and extent of Thailand’s human-trafficking business and its deadly consequences became apparent late last week.

Last Friday, authorities revealed that they had found dozens of bodies in mass graves belonging to some of the estimated tens of thousands of people from neighbouring countries who are moved through Thailand’s trafficking camps each year.

Fresh mass graves were still being found over the weekend — dead citizens and stateless people from the strife-torn state of Rakhine in Myanmar and from nearby Bangladesh.

Ironically, the terrible discoveries appear to have bolstered the chances of Thailand-based Australian journalist Alan Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian. They are due to face court on charges related to their tireless work championing the victims of the hideous trade. The charges carry a possible five-year jail sentence.

“Although survivors from Burma and Bangladesh have been telling journalists for years about horrific conditions in the Thai trafficking camps, the number of bodies found in Songkhla yesterday appears to have finally persuaded doubting officials,” the pair wrote on their Phuketwan.com news site yesterday.

Thailand has long been in denial about the extent of this industry of misery within its borders and, to some extent, it has managed to fool much of the world, too.

But after decades of escalating human trafficking, it has become too rampant to ignore. In 2014, the United States Trafficking in Persons report downgraded Thailand to a tier-three nation, the worst of the worst. This was initially met with a gnashing of the teeth and denial by Thailand’s government.

The downgrade was a major blow to Thailand’s international standing, which was already wobbly after last year’s military coup. The coup installed a junta that is struggling to produce a new constitution acceptable even to its hand-picked parliament, a necessary precursor to fresh elections originally promised for later this year.

The appalling record in human slavery underpins both Thailand’s seafood industry, one of it major exports, and its notorious sex industry. It’s the dark side of the so-called “land of smiles”  and one of Australia’s favourite holiday destinations.

“The majority of the trafficking victims within Thailand — tens of thousands of victims, by conservative estimates — are migrants from Thailand’s neighbouring countries who are forced, coerced, or defrauded into labour or exploited in the sex trade,” the US report said.

“A significant portion of labour-trafficking victims within Thailand are exploited in commercial fishing, fishing-related industries, low-end garment production, factories, and domestic work; some victims are forced to beg on the streets.”

Two weeks ago, tired of serial empty promises from a string of governments in recent decades, the European Union threatened to cut off access to its markets — one of Thailand most important — if the country didn’t take swift and solid action. This was the impetus that the military junta needed to take stronger action.

Led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s self-appointed Prime Minister, the junta is widely seen as determined to make serious inroads into a problem that successive governments —  including the 20o8-2011 government led by Eton and Oxford-educated lawyer Abhisit “Mark” Vejjajiva — have thrown into the too-hard basket. This difficulty has been largely due to the reported involvement of Thailand’s navy and police.

Already there have been some government wins, with thousands of fishermen freed from vessels.

But the human-cargo problem has also been exacerbated by the fact that it has been off limits for all but the bravest of the country’s often heavily censored media.

One of the brave news outlets has been Phuketwan.com, run by Morison. As reported by Crikey last year, Morison and Sidasathian fell victim to a complaint by the Royal Thai Navy after they reprinted a damning story from wire service Reuters.

They now face five years in jail should they be found guilty in a trial due to commence in early July. But Morison is increasingly confident that things will go their way.

“We thank the spirits of the dead for the timely reminder about our case,” Morison told Crikey yesterday.

“The case certainly brings together the issue of the treatment of the Rohingya and the media’s freedom to report it,” he said, adding that the pair would soon be talking to lawyers and potential witnesses in Bangkok.

“The hope is that the criminal defamation case can be withdrawn before the trial resumes on July 14-16. We’re innocent, and we have done nothing wrong. Republishing Reuters is hardly a crime. Most of the people we have been talking to understand that the case was simply a mistake made by one or two navy officers, acting on bad advice, and are keen to resume a normal relationship,” Morison said.

“The present government is actually better at recognising the respective roles of military and media than some of its predecessors. We’ve been talking to senior navy officers and people in government and would be surprised if the case proceeds.”

As the truth of Thailand’s shameful human-trafficking history becomes clearer, its government should recognise that allowing the media to report on it can help its stated objective to rid the country of this barbaric scourge.

Yesterday, Thailand’s four major media organisations marked World Press Freedom Day with a call to the junta to revoke three orders, which they say restrict their right to report freely.

Freedom and freedom of the press go hand in hand. The Australian government has made people smuggling one of its signature battles; therefore, it should use this opportunity to press home Morison’s case with as much force as it can muster in Bangkok.

Peter Fray

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