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First human trafficking case in Rakhine to head to court

(Photo: Reuters)

By Nyan Lynn Aung
August 13, 2015

The government has accepted the first official case of human trafficking in Rakhine State, after maintaining for years that no such crime occurs in the poverty-stricken region.

Twenty people accused of smuggling Bangladeshis and Rohingya asylum-seekers will be brought to court this month under the state’s first prosecution of trafficking, according to police.

The 20 suspects were already convicted in June of violating immigration laws and were charged but not tried for “habitual dealing in slaves”, which is an offence under the criminal code rather than under anti-human trafficking legislation.

On August 4, the Ministry of Home Affairs accepted a further lawsuit against the group explicitly for trafficking, according to U Min Naing, police major with the police force’s anti-human trafficking unit.

While the trafficking case has been approved, it has not yet been filed at the local court.

“They are at Buthidaung prison and they will face court if the case is opened under the trafficking law,” said Police Major Khin Win from Alaethankyaw police station in Maungdaw township.

The men, who were arrested after two boats carrying smuggled people were recovered and brought to land by the Myanmar navy, are from Aye-yarwady and Tanintharyi regions, according to the immigration office.

According to the initial arrest records, an officer in charge of the anti-human trafficking unit filed a lawsuit against the suspects on May 24. It is not yet clear what section of the 2005 Anti Trafficking in Persons Law will be used to prosecute them.

The new case was only entered into official logs after receiving ministry approval – too late for it to be included on a recently released national human trafficking report, which tallied cases in the first half of the year.

“It is not yet on the list that trafficking cases have been recorded in Rakhine State so far,” Pol Maj Min Naing said.

The government has long denied the existence of a trafficking route stemming from Rakhine State even though rights groups such as Fortify Rights and the Arakan Project have documented swells of people – mostly members of the stateless Muslim minority who identify as Rohingya – fleeing the state with the assistance or under the force of smugglers. The well-worn route is so profitable that rights groups have said fishing boats turn instead to hauling human cargo, and later extort and sell the passengers at camps in Thailand and Malaysia.

Even as a regional crisis erupted in May with thousands of Myanmar and Bangladeshis left stranded at sea, the government continued to reject assertions by the international community that treatment of the Rohingya – whom it officially refers to as Bengali – leads them to flee the primitive camps many are confined to.

The US State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons report noted that the 146,000 displaced people in Rakhine State are especially vulnerable to trafficking and that reports have indicated that women and children from Rakhine have been subjected to sex trafficking, while others have been forced into labour, including for government and military forces. The report also noted that fewer traffickers were convicted in 2014 than in 2013.

From January to the end of June, the government has recovered 225 trafficking victims, including 108 women and 117 men. Seventy-four criminal cases have been initiated, across all states and regions except for Rakhine, Karen and Chin states and the Nay Pyi Taw Council area.

Pol Maj Min Naing said 125 “perpetrators” had been arrested, while police were still searching for another 65 suspects.

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