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The big issue: The business of selling humans

Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar wave as they are transported by a wooden boat to a temporary shelter in Krueng Raya in Aceh Besar. (Reuters photo)

By Alan Dawson
May 10, 2015

Even police chiefs and army commanders now know, at last, what the rest of the country has known for years. That is, that a major industry has been established in Thailand, and it is slavery.

Feigned shock and surprise is no longer an acceptable response to being lodged at Tier 3 and receiving a yellow card from Europe.

The worst part of this shameful business of buying and selling human chattel is that it is a throwback. It is the 18th century redux. It is like watching a movie, with the Africans replaced by buying and selling boats full of Rohingya and truckloads of Karen and pickups full of Pa-O. Men own humans. They buy, sell, starve, shoot and bury them. Abraham Lincoln and Lord Mansfield and King Chulalongkorn the Great are shamed.

Tales from Roots to Amistad to the gripping, recent Canadian miniseries The Book of Negroes are live, in Thailand. In the past and today, men enticed or lured or captured groups of native people and declared them property. They were, and are, sold — men, women and children — by the boat or vehicle load, en masse, to a middleman. Then they are auctioned, one at a time for profit. Just a business, right?

England abolished all this in 1833. Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation was in 1863. King Rama V abolished the right for a person to buy, sell or own another person 138 years ago. Until recently, you might have believed slavery only occurs when actors pretend. Unfortunately, no.

Just like in the 17th century, slave traders seek out and uproot small villages in Arakhan state of Myanmar or Shan state. Or wherever. The Rohingya are put aboard boats, taken to Satun and Ranong and Songkhla, sold in a group to a slave dealer. Others are put in a truck, or just rounded up and put in a camp. Each group is sold to a “businessman”.

Then he sets about selling each part of the group one at a time. Selling humans is just a business, after all, much like 7-Eleven, which buys a million litres of milk, and then sells each bottle individually.

In this allegedly civilised 21st century, individual Rohingya are sold to their own families. It is a straight shakedown. Ransoms reportedly run between 50,000 and 150,000 baht to purchase one slave from the owner.

The Rohingya slave trade is almost identical to the African experience. There is only the tiny twist that the final buyers are family.

The mass graves of Songkhla, and the earlier, chilling cemeteries of Benjina, Indonesia, make this both a Thailand issue and an Asean one. Once again, foreign governments are attempting to dump their unwanted on neighbours. Myanmar won’t even admit the Rohingya in Arakhan are citizens. Malaysia pulls the disadvantaged from Arakhan and promises them a better future.

So Gen PM Prayut or an astute adviser has won both some respect and time by calling for a three-nation summit. It will allow Malaysia and Myanmar to collect their share of the blame and shame — bad for them, good for the green shirts. On Friday, the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights laid full blame for slavery on the regional group, and never mentioned Thailand.

The next week or two are crucial. Other countries, activists, the NGOs, local and international Muslim groups — all of these are giving Gen PM Prayut and police room to operate. Even the always voluble US issued a muted “let’s hope for action” statement.

While he quickly grasped the issue after the discovery of the first mass graves, the prime minister took a giant step backwards. The transfers to inactive posts of four dozen police and a mid-ranking army officer won’t win praise.

Nor will locking up a village chief from Padang Besar, a minnow plucked from a tank of sharks.

As the Bangkok Post editor’s leader put it: “Take down the traffickers ... 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.”

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