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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Migrant fishermen fall through cracks in Thai trafficking laws

By Joel Brinkley


Don't ever accept an invitation to go fishing in Thailand. You might not come back.

Almost daily, bodies are washing ashore along the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Cambodia. These are unfortunate migrants, most of them from here in Cambodia. These people were sold to Thai fishermen who took them out to sea, worked them until they starved to death and then threw them overboard. It happens all the time.

The problem got so bad that the United States Senate's Foreign Relations Committee and the United Nations both but put out reports in recent weeks excoriating Thai and Malaysian authorities for selling Cambodian and Burmese migrants to Thai boat captains, sending them to a near-certain death. "If they are unable to pay for their release," the Senate report said, "the refugees are sold into forced labor, most commonly on fishing boats."

Once on the boat, "they don't come back," said Maj. Gen Visut Vanichbut of the Thai police. "All they get to eat is the fish that get left over in the net. They aren't paid. If they get sick, they're thrown overboard."

When they die, from overwork or starvation, their bodies are thrown to the sharks. In most cases, no one knew the victim was on the boat, and so no one claims the body if it washes ashore.
The general told me about this last year. But the United Nations report shows that the hideous problem continues at full force even now. It quotes several Cambodians who watched fishermen decapitate captives or throw them overboard. Several governments, not just Thailand's, are at fault. And by all accounts, the economic crisis is exacerbating the problem.

Until just now, the Cambodian law governing trafficking did not even recognize men as potential victims. The laws were written to protect women and children drawn into sexual slavery. But in June, the government in Phnom Penh announced that it was revising the statute.

"Today we change our strategy also to focus on men," Kong Chhan, a deputy director in the Ministry of Social Affairs, told the Phnom Penh Post.

Now we can only wait for Thailand to change its strategy.

Most of the news you hear from Thailand these days involves the riots and demonstrations to overturn whatever government happens to be in power. No one talks about the fishing-boat problem. The fishermen pay off the police. The police then cover up the crimes, and so hundreds of victims continue to die month after month.

If a victim manages to survive, then Thailand is well-equipped to care for him and then use international agencies to help send him home. The Thai government has shelters and administrators whose jobs are to help human-trafficking victims. I have seen them. The shelters are quite nice. And that serves as a stark illustration of a noxious paradox that afflicts human-trafficking enforcement in Thailand, Cambodia and much of the world.

When human trafficking first came into focus for law-enforcement a decade ago, legal and political officials everywhere put primary emphasis on protecting the victims - the people who were lured into slavery and abused. Stories a decade ago of police and immigration agents jailing and then deporting the trafficking victims along with their captors horrified human-rights advocates, and their complaints were quite influential when the first human-trafficking laws were drafted.

No pressure

That victim-oriented approach has held firm all these years, and "it has proved to work perfectly for the Thai," said Lance Bonneau head of the International Organization of Migration office in Bangkok, his tone oozing disgust. His organization works with the Thai government to send trafficking victims back home to Cambodia, Burma - just as other IOM officers do all over the world.

"If you 'have' the victim," Bonneau told me, "there's no pressure to go after the traffickers" who are paying off the police. "It doesn't upset any of the arrangements the police have" with the fishing boat captains, the brothel and dance-club owners or others who enslave hapless victims. The traffickers can pursue their unconscionable work; the police can continue taking their kickbacks.

When the State Department researches its annual Trafficking in Persons report each year and asks Thailand what it is doing to fight trafficking, the Thai can point to their anti-trafficking laws and to those lovely shelters for victims. Usually, that's enough to save Thailand from a poor rating.

Thailand officials responded to the Senate and United Nations allegations with angry denials. Maybe in Washington's next report, it will look a little deeper at Thailand.

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Vietnam Plans To Build Border Economic Zone With Cambodia

HANOI, July 4 (Bernama) -- Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has approved a master plan to build the region along the border with Cambodia into a major economic zone, according to the Vietnam news agency's report.

Under the ambitious scheme, the southwestern border areas, comprised of four provinces in the Central Highlands and six provinces in the southern region, will be developed into an economic zone of national and international importance by 2020.

The border economic zone including Gia Lai, Kon Tum, Dac Lak, Dak Nong, Binh Phuoc, Tay Ninh, Long An, Dong Thap, An Giang and Kien Giang provinces, will act as an entry point for trade, services and cargo transportation between the Greater Mekong's Sub region and the East Sea.

The area, which totals 73,369sq.km, is home to 12,650,000 people and expected to become a national economicdriving force in terms of agriculture, forestry, hydropower and transportation, according to the plan announced by the Government website.

By 2030, the areas along the Cambodia border will become a major economic zone of national and international importance, which can have a special influence to the Central Highlands and the central and southern regions of Vietnam, as well as to other economies in the Gulf of Thailand.

The area is expected to become the nation's biggest natural reserve of biological diversity and ethnic cultures, and one of the major tourist attractions in the ASEAN region, the news agency said.

The cities of Buon Ma Thuot and Pleiku in the Central Highlands, Long Xuyen in the Mekong Delta and Trang Bang Town in Tay Ninh will be developed into the development cores of the region.

Priorities will be given to developing urban centres and economic zones along the border with Cambodia. Phu Quoc Island will become a special administrative and economic zone under the plan, which has a vision through 2030.
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Border dispute not lead to war with Cambodia: Thai defense minister

BANGKOK, July 4 (Xinhua) -- Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said on Saturday that he was confident that the border dispute with Cambodia will not lead to war between the two countries as some fear.

Thailand's Army Region 2 commander will hold talks with Cambodia's army region 4 commander to ease tension along the border and to reduce military forces of the two countries deployed near Preah Vihear temple, Prawit was quoted by the website of the Bangkok Post as saying.

The area around Preah Vihear Temple, which was inscribed as a World Heritage Site on July 7 last year, has been the scene of a tense standoff between the Cambodian and Thai armed forces. The Cambodian government insisted that Thai troops have deployed on Cambodian soil, while Thailand said its troops are only in the disputed zone.

Early Saturday, Thai Deputy Prime Minister for security affairs Suthep Thaugsuban flew to Cambodia to attend the opening ceremony of No 67 highway, due to be presided by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

This is the second visit to Cambodia by Suthep in two weeks.

Suthep said that Thailand has no policy to cut number of troop deployed along Thai-Cambodia border for the time being.

However, he expressed confidence that the situation along the border will not escalate to violent confrontation between the two countries.

In mid-June, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit said the government would ask UNESCO to review last year's decision to register Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site when he meets the organization this week in Spain.

On Cambodian side, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said his country was ready for any situation which might follow the reinforcement of troops on the Thai side of the border.

Tensions have escalated at the Thai-Cambodian border, with Thailand's Second Army Area commander Lt General Wiboonsak Neeparn recently rotated troops at Preah Vihear so that they are fresh and ready for a possible attack from Cambodia.

Cambodia has already boosted its presence in the border area.
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