TAKUAPA: Thailand must halt human trafficking or face putting its reputation at risk for endangering hundreds of the world's most destitute people.
The country's foreign ministry became embroiled in a case involving Bangladeshi boatpeople yesterday, adding chaos to a complex situation that requires clarity and a commitment to finding solutions, not covering up the truth.
Officials from the ministry complained and acted as censors when reporters from the BBC and Phuketwan attempted to film and talk to officials from Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh investigators had come to the town of Takuapa, north of Phuket, to interview 81 men and boys.
The group claimed they had been kidnapped but even if they were merely enticed into believing better jobs awaited them outside Bangladesh, the case clearly involves human trafficking.
It comes amid revelations that Rohingya minority Muslims are fleeing Burma (Myanmar) by the thousands and the first visual evidence that they face abuse, rape of the women and possible death because conditions in the secret jungle camps of southern Thailand are so appalling.
The scandalous way the countries of the region have allowed this shocking trade in people to evolve and grow was criticised in the Opinion pages of the International New York Times on Thursday with the lead article headed 'Enslaved Abroad, Oppressed at Home' dealing with Bangladesh and Thailand plus an Editorial entitled 'The Persecution of the Rohingya.'
The cat is out of the bag. Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a marketing organisation that prefers to hide the truth rather than solve the problem.
Trying to prevent the media reporting the story, as officials from the ministry appeared to be attempting yesterday, only serves to do Thailand more harm than good.
The fact is that the ministry should be concentrating on ending Burma's ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Rakhine state, where Thailand's human trafficking trauma begins.
In the five years since Phuketwan and the South China Morning Post newspaper exposed Thailand's inhumane ''pushbacks'' policy, Thailand has become a country through which thousands travel down a secret trafficking trail that should have been closed years ago.
Instead, the trail has been allowed to flourish and grow.
Thailand's Andaman holiday coast and southern provinces are now places where traffickers carry out their shocking business with impunity.
The good people of Takuapa town made a stand two weeks ago as traffickers attempted to truck 134 men and boys to secret jungle camps in southern Thailand.
Christian, Buddhist and Muslim volunteers, working with the district chief, apprehended the boatpeople in two groups, interviewed each of them to international standards, and declared them to be victims of human trafficking.
Local police usually pass boatpeople on quickly to Immigration officers as ''illegal immigrants,'' a classification that saves spending money on confining and feeding the arrivals and leaves Thailand's reputation free from taint.
But the stand by the local community, who want to put an end to human trafficking in Thailand, has disturbed the trafficking trail and led to alarm at the top levels in many government departments.
As a result, many telephone calls have been made from Bangkok to people on the ground in Takuapa, urging that the case should be treated as illegal immigration, not human trafficking.
Foreign Ministry officials appeared yesterday to blame the media for the mess.
The real reason: Thailand declines to confront Burma and prefers instead to sacrifice its own reputation along the ever-growing trafficking trails.
The trade in people continues, with no end in sight.
A final decision on the status of the Bangladeshi boatpeople is expected to become apparent early next week.