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ASEAN should stop human trafficking, for its own people’s sake

Malaysian forensic police officers carrying body bags with human remains found at the site of human trafficking camps in the jungle close to the Thailand border in May last year. Photo: Reuters

January 24, 2016

Regional leaders inaugurated an ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) Community at the end of last year to bring their 10 countries closer — not only for economic integration, but also on security and political issues as well as social and cultural affairs.

One test for this dream of Community is whether the lives of ordinary citizens will improve and one hard issue will be the ongoing tragedy of trafficking in people.

Last year, mass graves were discovered along the border of Thailand and Malaysia, containing the remains of more than 200 people. The cases are still under investigation, but most fear the victims were from the Rakhine state in Myanmar — called the Rohingya by some — and had been kidnapped or illegally trafficked before being abandoned and killed.

Beyond the headlines about the Rohingya, millions are trafficked across South-east Asia to work in different industries — including the sex industry, fishing and on plantations. Accurate figures for the region are debatable, but, for the Asia-Pacific, the International Labour Organization estimates that there are now more than 11.7 million victims of forced labour. A much stronger effort is needed to stem the illegal trafficking in persons.

By the end of this month, countries will submit statements about the steps they have taken to the United States State Department annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report. This grades countries on a four-category list, according to the extent of the problem and the efforts being taken. To date, most ASEAN member states occupy the middle ranks.

For example, Singapore has remained in its Tier 2 position (for countries whose governments do not fully comply with the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards) for five consecutive years — despite enacting the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act and acceding to the United Nations protocol against trafficking in persons last year.

Singapore and other countries have questioned the objectivity of the American ranking, since it is based on American law and the US has its own political biases. Naturally, ASEAN’s anti-trafficking efforts should not solely focus on meeting the US’ criteria, but the TIP report still serves as a useful gauge.

The Rohingya issue brings the spotlight to bear on Myanmar, the source country, as well as Malaysia and Thailand. Each has fared very differently in the lens of American attention, and not always for good reasons.


Myanmar has yet to be assessed and graded by the US. There is some justification for this given that the country has been in transition to full democratic elections. But after the historical result that has brought the National League for Democracy to power, the government must be expected to better address the issue at its root.

Looking at the grades that Americans have given to Malaysia and Thailand, however, there are concerns that extraneous factors can be taken into consideration.

The US pushed up Malaysia from Tier 3 (for countries whose governments do not fully comply with the US TVPA’s minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so) last year despite the country being part of the Rohingya tragedy.

True, the Malaysian authorities showed more effort. In 2014, they launched 186 investigations into trafficking cases, more than double the year before. About 54 cases were prosecuted in court. But the Thais showed as much or even more effort.

Suspicions have arisen that the US was kinder to Malaysia because of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement that President Barack Obama has been pushing as a centrepiece of engagement with the region. If the TIP report had left Malaysia in Tier 3, the country’s poor rating on human trafficking would automatically have prevented the Obama administration from securing “fast-track” approval of the TPP through Congress.

Political expedience and the TPP’s importance may therefore have been the critical factors, rather than effort specifically to improve Malaysia’s record on trafficking. Political factors may also play a role in the case of Thailand, but in the opposite direction.

The country has been kept in Tier 3, but seems to have done even more than Malaysia. The authorities in Bangkok investigated about 280 trafficking cases and prosecuted 155 alleged traffickers. Efforts have continued and indeed strengthened in the past months with the arrest and indictment of more suspects — including a senior army general, alleged to be a lynchpin in trafficking.

Systemic changes have been made. The Prayuth Chan-ocha government has created a high level, inter-ministry task force and increased the budget to tackle the issue. Laws have been streamlined to allow for cases to be prosecuted more quickly and to increase punishments against those found guilty. Efforts in the fishing industry, heavily implicated for forced labour, have put in place monitoring systems on board vessels and are making thorough checks on vessels when they go in and out of port.

Thai efforts seem to be on par with Malaysia’s and perhaps stronger. This leads critics to speculate that the US TIP report was shaped more by other political considerations and not only objective assessments.

After all, Thai-US relations have been under strain since the military coup that brought the current administration to power in Bangkok.

Tackling trafficking in the region is not an easy task. There are vested interests within the region that drive trade in persons. Concern and scrutiny from the international community is needed to urge on reform.

However, ASEAN member states should not act to simply secure a stamp of approval from Washington. Nor should the US or others in the international community leverage the issue for extraneous political reasons. Even-handedness and cooperation, rather than biased views, will be key to unlock this important and complex problem.

South-east Asian countries should take the initiative to solve the issue for their own people, as a flagship in the human dimension of their Community-building project. Only then can the US and other major powers truly support ASEAN on the issue and work collectively to address the responsibilities of source, transit and destination countries.


Simon Tay is the chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), an independent and globally ranked think tank, and associate professor at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. Aaron Choo and Shangari Kiruppalini, are respectively, assistant director and policy research analyst at the SIIA.

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