BANGKOK — Twenty-three high-ranking officials who reportedly failed to protect the welfare of migrant workers welfare lost their jobs Friday by emergency decree, but the junta is not rushing to take credit.
Although the mass transfer of officials including a provincial governor appeared a goodwill gesture one day after Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi raised migrants’ rights with junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha, officials are playing down any connection.
“I haven’t heard of any connection between the two,” junta spokesman Winthai Suvaree said by telephone Monday.
Asked whether human trafficking and abuses of migrant workers were a factor behind the transfers, Col. Winthai said he did not know. Another spokesman, Piyapong Klinpan, also declined to comment on why the 23 officials were transferred. Instead, he referred to comments made over the weekend.
“Relevant agencies have already explained this issue,” Col. Piyapong said. “The details are as stated by those agencies.”
Though those remarks were no less vague, the positions of those forced from their jobs was telling.
Five held top positions in Samut Sakhon, a major fishing port city and home to more than 100,000 Myanmar workers that Suu Kyi visited Thursday. Also transferred were its governor, deputy attorney-general, labor inspector, industry inspector and provincial police commander.
Failure to take action on abuses of migrant laborers has been a reason for the transfers cited in media reports.
Another five were in charge of the investigation into slave camps run by human traffickers in the Deep South, over which 88 people have been arrested and charged with trafficking, though the case has been criticized as moving at a slow pace.
Those five were the attorney-general of Na Thawi Provincial Court; his deputy; chief of Sadao Police Station; commander of Songkhla provincial police; and commissioner of the southern region police force.
They included police commanders from the human trafficking, immigration, and metro police units.
The military government, which came to power in May 2014, says combating human trafficking and improving migrant rights are among its top priorities.
Under the junta, Thailand saw an unprecedented crackdown on trafficking networks and an effort to document migrant workers. It also seeks to comply with Western governments’ regulatory demands for its seafood industry, a business long fraught with overfishing and use of slave labor.
But the other hand, the junta has asked the media to self-censor its reporting about trafficking and other rights violations, insisting they risk harming Thailand’s reputation.
“The media should consider the impact the news will have on the country,” Prayuth chided the media in March 2015, when they reported an instance of Thais being duped into slavery on fishing boats in Indonesian waters. “It may cause problems and affect national security.”
Andy Hall, a prominent Western migrant rights activist, said the junta’s self-proclaimed effort to combat human trafficking is hindered by this lack of transparency.
“This is an exercise of dictatorial power, whereas it should be transparent,” Andy said of the transfers. “This is not so transparent. The government should tell the public why these officials were transferred. I want them to be fair to all sides … this issue must be handled with transparency, otherwise the problems would never end.”