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Take down the traffickers.

May 8, 2015

The Prayut government should be commended for taking swift action against human trafficking rings following the shocking discovery of Rohingya death camps in the dense jungles of Padang Besar by the Thai-Malaysian border.

On Wednesday, the government transferred a high-ranking army officer and 38 policemen in Satun, Ranong and Songkhla where Rohingya detention camps and graves are located. That these officers were in charge of immigration, marine surveillance and law enforcement in the areas confirms long-held public suspicions of government officials' collusion with trafficking networks.

The Prayut government knows full well the world is watching. The death camp headlines have grabbed attention worldwide. Lack of action will destroy the country's chance of being removed from the US human trafficking blacklist.

The prompt transfer orders aim to show that the government will not tolerate corrupt officials. The move is helpful in facilitating investigation, but it is not enough.

The government needs to get results. Corrupt officials should not only be transferred but punished. The leaders of trafficking rings need to be nabbed, not allowed to go scot-free as before. Every party involved in the Rohingya slave trade — from the brokers who cash in on the Rohingya's wish to flee oppression at home, and the Thai boats that provide transport, to government officials and local leaders who facilitate the traffickers — must be sent to court.

To make this happen, the survivors of Rohingya death camps must receive full protection as witnesses and be provided with sufficient support to testify and identify the perpetrators. If past records are anything to go by, the current big bang to end the Rohingya slave trade may soon turn out to be a whimper.

Two years ago, the police raided detention camps in Padang Besar and found hundreds of emaciated Rohingya there. Instead of getting help as victims of human trafficking, they were treated as illegal immigrants and promptly deported, allowing the criminals to escape charges and arrest.

Since deportation was at that time under fire as a way for corrupt officials to sell the victims back to trafficking rings at border exit points, the male Rohingya were sent to immigration prisons while the women were sent to state shelters. There was no proper investigation, no system to collect data or screen the victims and no efforts to send them home safely.

Living in the limbo of confinement, the Rohingya broke out of the prisons, often with inside help, and were pushed into the open arms of traffickers in the hope of returning home. Most of the time, they were sold back to the slave trade again.

It is not surprising that after this big raid in Padang Besar, no traffickers were arrested.

The government must not repeat past mistakes. About 60 Rohingya have survived the death camps. They are the key witnesses to catch the traffickers and must receive proper help and protection. This time, data collection must be thorough, without infiltration by traffickers' spies.

Human trafficking is a transborder organised crime. It demands transborder cooperation. As long as ethnic oppression and sectarian violence in Myanmar continue, so will the exodus of Rohingya. Thailand and Asean must make sure Myanmar realises its responsibility to accord the Rohingya their rights and dignity.

Meanwhile, Thailand must make sure Rohingya communities in Myanmar and Bangladesh are aware of the deadly dangers ahead if they end up at traffickers' mercy. Most importantly, Thailand must smash trafficking rings and punish corrupt officials. The world is waiting for the Prayut government to do it.

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Rohingya Exodus