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Confiscated pickup truck used to hide 10 Burmese bound for Phuket

Human Trafficking: Suffocation, or Solution?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009
People-Smuggling Photo Album Above

THE BALI Process on Human Trafficking, a gathering of nations from around the region, is this week examining what can be done about people-smuggling.

Headed by Indonesia and Australia, government ministers and other senior officials from neighboring countries and the United Nations are holding their key meeting today.

Among the topics will be the fate of the Rohingya boat people, first raised by Phuketwan and the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong back in January.

The issue, though, really is much broader than the Rohingya.

People-smuggling has been helping to drive the hidden economy of Thailand for decades, in construction, in fishing and in seafood factories, and even in popular holiday destinations such as Patong.

It was one year ago this month that the world became aware of the plight of illegal Burmese along the popular Andaman holiday coast, in the most horrific way imaginable.

A group of 120 illegals were crammed into a refrigerator truck in the Thai-Burma border town of Ranong, a secret human cargo bound for the dream island of Phuket and a better life.

But the truck's air-conditioning unit malfunctioned. The voyagers, packed tight, barely able to move, began to gasp for air.

By the time their awful plight was detected and someone unbarred the truck's thick metal doors, 54 of them had suffocated.

Looking into the back of the truck a few days later, clothing scattered on the floor, one could only wonder at such desperation in quest of hope.

Other impounded vehicles stood nearby, each having been used to attempt to smuggle Burmese to a better life along the coast, to Phuket or to Khao Lak, in the neighboring province of Phang Nga.

Months later, we were to learn that the desperation of some illegals extended to risking their lives in barely seaworthy boats, with little food and no real destination in mind.

Without knowing it, the Rohingya sailed into the unwelcoming arms of the military or specially-trained paramilitary in Thailand, who then pushed the boatloads back.

Hundreds died at sea, rightly sparking international outrage.

The great irony is that disclosure of what was happening appears to have achieved the military's aim: stopping the Rohingya boat people from coming to Thailand.

While more than 5000 Rohingya were arrested in the previous sailing season between monsoons, there have been no reports of boats coming south since late January, when the final 78 boat people were detained.

That was the first boatload to escape the push-back treatment, and to be processed normally through Thailand's court system.

Those 78 remain in detention in Ranong, awaiting the outcome of the Bali Process and other talks that may resolve their fate.

Short of Singapore or Brunei or one of the other richer countries in the region opting to take Rohingya as a labor force, which seems extremely unlikely, the solution lies with the Myanmar junta.

The Rohingya, mostly sailing from Myanmar or Bangladesh, will probably stop their boat voyages if their lives can be improved.

But after decades of appalling treatment at the hands of an uncaring state, can that happen?

Greg Torode, the Chief Asia Correspondent for the South China Morning Post, reports today from Bali that the junta is pushing ahead with a giant fortified fence stretching along part of its border with Bangladesh.

The move, he says, is sparking fears that it may complicate international efforts to solve the Rohingya crisis.

''Myanmar's delegates attending a closed-door meeting on human trafficking today in Bali are expected to face questions over the fence, intended to run for 40km across the rivers and marshes just inside the border,'' Torode writes.

''It will be draped with razor wire and patrolled from a series of checkpoints.''

One delegate told Torode: ''It is hard to imagine they actually want to keep the Rohingya in.

''It could stop those who have fled from returning and generally add to cross-border tensions and greatly worsen the sense of persecution.''

UN officials believe the Rohingya are now among the most persecuted people anywhere, unable to legally work, move or easily marry.

Yet the people-smuggling issue extends much more widely in Thailand and applies to thousands of other Burmese, too.

This was illustrated last month when three young, starving illegals, fleeing a harsh life on a fishing trawler in Southern Thailand waters, clambered onto a yacht and killed the British captain.

For now, though, the fate of the Rohingya holds the key to beginning the ''process'' of dealing with human trafficking in the region.

Torode says the plight of the boat people is dominating side meetings and behind-the-scenes discussions, although nervous senior officials are saying nothing publicly until the meeting is over.

An Asian delegate said: ''One false move and they could just throw up their hands and refuse to help. It is that tense.''

Australia's particular concern is illegal migration from Afghanistan, where more than 50 illegals recently died of suffocation in a container truck . . . just like their counterparts a year earlier in Thailand.

Without answers, the desperation and the horror will continue.

Thailand's UN Pledge: No More Boat People Deaths
Photo Album No more pushing back the boats: that is the guarantee extracted from Thailand by the UN as an international body looks at human trafficking and its tragic outcomes.
Thailand's UN Pledge: No More Boat People Deaths

Boat People Update: DSI Pursues Traffickers
Latest People smugglers have now become the centre of an investigation by Thailand's DSI, best known on Phuket for their property title probes. Top level talks are taking place on the Rohingya.
Boat People Update: DSI Pursues Traffickers

Update: PM Admits Boat People Towed to Sea
Latest Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says he believes there were 'instances' of Rohingya boats being pushed out to sea. The word 'atrocities' is used in a headline.
Update: PM Admits Boat People Towed to Sea

More Boat People Arrested, Army Not Involved
Latest Update A change in thinking seems to have been applied to the latest Rohingya arrest of 78 boat people off the Andaman tourist coast. They are in police custody and scheduled to appear in court.
More Boat People Arrested, Army Not Involved

Boat People in Thailand: Phuketwan Reports
Fresh Tourist Snapshots The torment of the Rohingya boat people was brought to the world's attention by Phuketwan. Now we look forward to Thailand restoring its good reputation.
Boat People in Thailand: Phuketwan Reports


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