Will Malaysia finally address the human trafficking of Rohingya?

Horrific tragedy: In 2015 authorities discovered death camps and mass graves on both sides of the Thailand and Malaysian border.

IN A FEW WEEKS, Thailand and Malaysia will again be ranked in the US Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP report) for their efforts in combating human trafficking. Many government’s rightly go to great lengths to avoid the lowest ranking – Tier 3 – as it can invite sanctions and have other punitive ripple effects, such as discouraging foreign investment.

This year’s ranking is as important for these two countries as ever – particularly given that each wants to be seen as a champion in the region on the prevention of human trafficking. A key question remains: with regard to trafficked Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, has either government done enough?

Human traffickers and complicit government officials have preyed on Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar for many years. In 2015, the United States relegated Thailand to Tier 3 due primarily to the tens of thousands of Rohingya trafficked through the country, while Malaysia was upgraded from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List, a category denoting nations that deserve special scrutiny.

Malaysia remained in Tier 2 Watch List in 2016 before it was moved out of the Watch List in 2017. Last year, Malaysia was downgraded back to Tier 2 Watch List.

Thailand, which was moved up to Tier 2 Watch List in 2016 and 2017 was further upgraded to Tier 2 last year.

The situation for Thailand and Malaysia came to a head in April and May 2015 when authorities discovered death camps and mass graves on both sides of the border. The beginning of the story on the Thai side was in Khao Kaew, where the authorities unearthed more than 30 bodies. From this discovery, Thailand began an investigation that led to the biggest-ever human trafficking case in Thailand.

The first verdict arrived on July 19, 2017 in which 62 out of 103 defendants were convicted. Among those convicted were 16 state officials and security enforcement officers.

Apart from the judicial process, Thailand also established shelters for victims of trafficking and demonstrated efforts to build the capacity of government staff and interpreters to better serve survivors of trafficking. In addition, since 2015, Thailand amended the Anti-Trafficking Act three times (in 2015, 2017, and 2019), expanding on the act of trafficking to include coercion and forced labor as well as confiscation of personal documents. In Malaysia, on May 25, 2015, officials disclosed a discovery of 139 graves and 28 suspected human-trafficking camps in Wang Kelian, Perlis, near the border with Thailand. Unlike in Thailand, Malaysian authorities only prosecuted four people, all of whom were foreigners (from Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Thailand). Perceptions of impunity in Malaysia were understandably the cause of suspicion within Malaysian society and among human rights organisations.

In March this year, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) and Fortify Rights launched a joint report, Sold Like Fish, based on a multi-year joint investigation into the trafficking of Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Malaysia from 2012 to 2015. The report finds that traffickers committed crimes against humanity against Rohingya at sea, in Thailand, and in Malaysia from 2012 to 2015. The report is based on more than 270 interviews with eyewitnesses, survivors, human traffickers, government officials, and others from 2013 to 2019.

The report exposes official complicity in human trafficking in Thailand and points to a cover up in Malaysia. One key finding is that Malaysian authorities destroyed the human-trafficking campsite in Wang Kelian a day after it was discovered, destroying evidence that could have been used in a police investigation. Malaysian authorities also waited four months before ordering a forensic team to exhume bodies. These actions hampered prospects for a meaningful investigation, raising important questions of official complicity.

Earlier this year, the government of Malaysia created a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the mass graves and trafficking discovered in Wang Kelian. The RCI is currently holding public hearings, collecting testimony that further indicates official involvement in the trafficking of Rohingya.

There is a lot riding on the RCI’s work. If the commission fails to ensure accountability for the atrocity crimes againts Rohingya and other in Wang Kelian, Malaysia could face a downgrade in the annual TIP report.

And while Thailand held traffickers accountable, there is still significant work to do. Thailand needs to ensure survivors receive prompt and sufficient remedy and compensation.

Lastly, Myanmar’s ongoing attacks against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State constitute genocide, according to Fortify Rights, the United Nations, and many others, and these crimes continue to cause significant refugee outflows. For Thailand and Malaysia to fully address the trafficking of Rohingya, cooperation from the government of their country of origin – Myanmar – is crucial.

However, Myanmar’s cooperation is not forthcoming – the government still denies the very existence of Rohingya, let alone protect them. In this context, in which Myanmar continues to pose a threat to international peace and security and remains responsible for genocide, all efforts to ensure justice and accountability should be prioritised. This would include a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court.

  • Puttanee Kankgun is a Senior Human Rights Specialist with Fortify Rights.
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