Human-trafficking must be a priority for the Asean community, not just to please the US but for the good of its own people

Simon Tay says one of the main tasks of the newly inaugurated Asean Economic Community should be to work to improve the lives of ordinary citizens in the region

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 January, 2016, 10:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 January, 2016, 10:00am

Regional leaders inaugurated an Asean community at the end of 2015 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 a community is whether the lives of ordinary citizens will improve, and one hard issue will be the ongoing tragedy of human-trafficking.

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

Beyond the headlines about the Rohingya, millions are trafficked across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to work in different industries – including the sex industry, fishing and on plantations. Accurate figures are debatable but, for the Asia-Pacific region, the International Labour Organisation estimates there are over 11.7 million victims of forced labour.

By the end of January, countries will submit statements about the steps taken to the US State Department annual Trafficking In Persons Report. This grades countries on a four-category list. To date, most Asean members occupy the middle ranks.

READ MORE: Asean Economic Community faces numerous challenges

The Rohingya issue puts the spotlight on Myanmar, as well as Malaysia and Thailand. Each has fared very differently in the lens of US attention, and not always for good reason. Myanmar has yet to be assessed and graded. There is some justification for this, as the country has been in transition to full democratic elections. But after the National League for Democracy swept to power, the time is coming for the government to better address the issue.

Looking at the grades that the US has given to Malaysia and Thailand, however, there are concerns that extraneous factors can be taken into account. The US pushed up Malaysia from Tier 3 last year despite the country being part of the Rohingya tragedy. True, Malaysian authorities made more effort. In 2014, they launched 186 investigations into trafficking cases, more than double the year before.

But the Thais put in 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 trafficking report had left Malaysia in Tier 3, this would automatically have prevented Obama from securing “fast-track” approval through Congress.

READ MORE: Three more Thai military officers wanted for human 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. Authorities in Bangkok investigated some 280 trafficking cases and prosecuted 155 alleged traffickers. Efforts have continued and indeed strengthened in the past months. Systemic changes have been made. The Prayuth Chan-o-cha government has created a high-level 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. In the fishing industry, monitoring systems are now in place on vessels.

Thai efforts seem on a par with Malaysia’s and perhaps stronger. This leads critics to speculate that the US report was shaped more by other political considerations. After all, Thai-US relations have been under strain since the military coup in Bangkok.

Tackling trafficking in the region is not easy. There are vested interests that drive the trade. Concern and scrutiny from the international community is needed. However, Asean members should not simply act to secure Washington’s stamp of approval. Nor should the US or others leverage the issue for political reasons. Even-handedness and cooperation will be key. Asean countries should take the initiative to solve the issue for their own people. Only then can the world truly support Asean.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, and associate professor at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. Aaron Choo and Shangari Kiruppalini, who also contributed to the article, are respectively, assistant director and policy research analyst at the institute