BANGKOK – Thailand is eager to show its newfound toughness on human trafficking, taking reporters on patrols and tours of former camps, cooperating with neighboring countries and the U.S., and arresting dozens of officials — including a high-ranking officer in the military that now controls the country. The junta even had a "National Anti-Human Trafficking Day."
The Southeast Asian country is trying to dissuade Western governments from leveling economic sanctions, but it has a daunting enemy: history.
"Thailand remains major center for human trafficking." Those words were emblazoned on a huge headline in a Thai daily newspaper printed nearly three years ago. The country's answer was largely to ignore the problem, until recent events made that impossible.
The discovery of 36 bodies at abandoned traffickers' camps near Thailand's southern border with Malaysia has intensified international pressure on Thailand to crack down on smugglers. So has a subsequent crisis involving thousands of migrants who were stranded at sea by their traffickers — and whose boats were pushed back by Thai officials. Those migrants, mainly Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya migrants from Myanmar, are just part of a human-trafficking problem that also includes Thai fishing boats that have used slave labor.
Last June, Thailand and Malaysia were put on a blacklist in a U.S. State Department assessment on human trafficking, a downgrade that can jeopardize its lucrative seafood and shrimp industries. The European Union also threatened Thailand with a ban on seafood import by the end of the year unless it drastically changes its policies on illegal and unregulated fishing.
A new State Department assessment is due this month, and Thailand is pushing for an upgrade with efforts that included its first-ever Anti-Human Trafficking Day on Friday. The opening ceremony at the prime minister's Government House was followed by discussion about the problem and an awards ceremony for a journalist, police and officials who have helped expose human trafficking problems.
"Today, we have to admit that this has been a problem in Thailand for a long time," Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said as he opened the event with an hour-long speech.
"The government is focusing on preventing and suppressing human trafficking and is determined to get rid of men who sell men, so that they no longer have a place to stand on our soil — no matter how influential they are or if they are government officials," said Prayuth, who took power from a civilian government in a May 2014 coup.
Yet even Friday's event raised questions about Thailand's seriousness. The journalist who was honored reported on trafficking from the country's inland north, not the south and the sea, where the crisis has been most immediate. Weeks earlier, when a Bangkok television reporter drew broad attention to the issue by getting on a migrant boat to shoot video, Prayuth obliquely referred to her as a troublemaker.
Human-rights activists and others have long accused Thai authorities of collusion in the trafficking industry — claims that police, military and government officials have long denied. But as the migrant camps, graves and boats drew global attention, pressure grew on the government to respond.
In a widening human-trafficking investigation, more than 50 people have been arrested in a month, including local politicians, government officials, police, and, in the past week, a senior-ranking army officer. About 50 police officers in the southern provinces were also removed from their posts and investigated for possible involvement in trafficking syndicates.
The junta-appointed legislature passed a new anti-human trafficking law that mandates harsher penalties, and human trafficking-related court cases will get a shortcut in the judicial system to prosecute suspects more quickly.
Thai police took journalists on several treks into the tropical jungle along the Thai-Malaysia border to witness the exhumation of graves and watch as the officers dismantled abandoned wooden shelters by hand.
Thailand's sudden clampdown prompted some human smugglers to abandon boats that were filled with migrants. Thousands of migrants reached shore — mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia — but an unknown number are believed to remain at sea.
Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia all rejected the ships as the crisis began, and all have been conducting some measure of damage control with the media.
Two days after Malaysia confirmed 28 migrant camps and 139 suspected graves on its side of the border with Thailand, more than 60 reporters were taken on a three-hour trek to an abandoned camp where a forensic team had exhumed a body. Further requests to visit other migrant camps have been rejected, though police say they have now recovered 49 bodies from the gravesite the media visited.
Under international pressure, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to take migrants in temporarily. Thailand did not, but insisted it will give humanitarian assistance to the boat people.
"It's not that Thailand isn't helping. It's good that everyone is helping, but Thailand has also provided help and our hands are full already," deputy government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd told The Associated Press, adding that the country already gave shelters to 140,000 refugees, mostly in camps along the Myanmar border.
Last month Thailand called a regional conference and brought together senior government officials from 17 countries and international organizations to discuss the swelling tide of boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh in Southeast Asia. But one moment from the event reflected the at times muddled nature of Thailand's cooperation.
The U.S. had for days been seeking Thai approval to conduct surveillance flights to look for migrants — approval that Malaysia had quickly granted. Thailand's foreign minister announced to reporters that the OK had been given, shortly after a U.S. diplomat told journalists that America was still waiting.
On the same day as the Bangkok conference, the Royal Thai Navy flew about 140 journalists to the southern island of Phuket to see a naval ship that would be used as a floating base to give food, water and medical treatment to migrants at sea. The navy flew a helicopter and a light patrol aircraft in a circle for cameramen to record the footage during the two-hour choreographed tour.
Critics say Thailand must do more to show it is serious about fighting human trafficking if it is to get off the U.S. blacklist and avoid the EU seafood import ban.
"Thailand needs to show that they are consistent with law enforcement," said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher of Human Rights Watch. "The arrest (of an army officer) showed that no one will be left untouched this time, but at the same time, it also made us question why have they allowed this to happen for years.
"Thailand has been accused of having the culture of impunity of state officials in the past, but this crisis offers a first chance to break that culture," he said.
Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker and video journalist Papitchaya Boonngok in Bangkok and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.