Trafficking and the TPP: Why are the graves being uncovered now?


(Rakyat Times) – The same Najib who implied that ‘human rights’ is a liberal invention, suddenly made Malaysia into the most compassionate of big three Asean countries—Thailand and Indonesia being the others—who were involved in this mess.

The IGP slipped.

Recently, Khalid Abu Bakar told journalists in Perlis that police had no prior knowledge about the mass graves and human trafficking activity along the Thai-Malaysian border.

Later, in the same press conference, he let slip that “everyone knows about human smuggling and trafficking in that area and that police had not been sitting idle, doing nothing.” Clearly, Khalid knew his mistake. His proud feathers ruffled, he began to get angry with the journalists present, saying that he was bored of answering questions.

But aside from Khalid’s ineptitude, of which we already know, if we go on the assumption that police had long known about the mass graves and trafficking, what then compelled the sudden need to sweep the border villages in Perlis for graves and bust syndicates?

The mass graves and death camps on the other side of the border were discovered on May 1. Twenty-six bodies were found.

The Home Ministry denied that were Malaysian equivalents, and that the majority of people smuggled across the border are economic migrants, and not trafficking victims. NGOs said that the refugees they met told stories of being kept in similar safe houses before being sold as slave labour.

Thai police kept discovering graves. The trafficking crew began deserting their smuggling boats soon after.

Meanwhile, the Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees and migrants aboard the smuggling ships were left starving and adrift at sea.

Malaysia had taken in 1,018 of these ‘boat people’ after one such ship got stuck on a breakwater, but said it would restock and send away other ships unless they were sinking.

Back to the graves. Thai and Malaysian police busted seven syndicates on May 12. 38 were arrested, including 16 Malaysians—two of whom were cops.

tra2Back to the boat people. After Malaysia made it known that it was no longer taking in refugees, the usual muscular rhetoric was heard. Provided, of course, by Zahid Hamidi.

While doing what he does best—wearing loud shirts and pointing at things in masculine fashion—he said Malaysia had no choice but to turn the refugees away.

“What do you expect us to do? You want to welcome them to Malaysia? You can if you want to. I am asking you what you expect us to do?”

Zahid also said: “If there are non-governmental organisations that are willing to send aid, we welcome them. They can send aid to the Immigration Department in Alor Star, Kedah. From there, the aid will be sent to the detention depots, namely the one in Belantik,” referring to the 1,018 refugees who were placed there.

Oddly enough, Belantik turned away some DAP members who had done exactly that just the day before.

Prime minister Najib Razak, meanwhile, did as expected, and waffled about finding an ‘Asean solution’.

“We respect the Asean principles whereby we do not interfere with the internal affairs of any Asean countries. However, when a certain problem has spread and affects the leadership of other Asean nations and possibly those outside Asean, then we need to find solutions through an Asean forum and cooperate with other parties,” he said.

And then an about turn.

Putrajaya, who seemed adamant on not officially taking in any more refugees, and who had previously been diplomatic to a fault towards Yangon, suddenly looked like they cared.

After foreign minister Anifah Aman had met Indonesian and Thai officials, Malaysia announced it would take in the refugees at sea.

Anifah even managed to arrange a meeting with Myanmar to discuss the “irregular movement of people, human trafficking and people smuggling”. This is the same Myanmar who had threatened to skip a regional meet if Thailand even mentioned the word ‘Rohingya.’

The rhetoric was still respectful, but Malaysia was suddenly pushing Myanmar for a solution.

tra3Then on May 24, police found the graves in Perlis. The Home Minister expressed his shock (incidentally, he also said the camps had been around for years).

Yesterday, Najib pledged to nab the “masterminds” of trafficking syndicates. The same Najib who implied that ‘human rights’ is a liberal invention, suddenly made Malaysia into the most compassionate of big three Asean countries—Thailand and Indonesia being the others—who were involved in this mess.

So why the sudden change of heart?

Two things involving Malaysia were happening in the US at almost exactly the same time.

First. Obama was pushing for fast-track authority in the US Senate. Fast-track authority would, among others, prevent US Congress from altering the terms of trade deals after they have been signed. Chiefly, Obama wanted fast-track to expedite the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement.

He was initially denied by his own fellow Democrats, who, in a moment of lucidity, recognised that what they had heard about the multilateral TPP would only help American corporations, but destroy the American labour market.

Why exactly TPP is probably one of the most catastrophic and downright evil trade deals ever thought up has been discussed before. But a short recap. One of the chief aims of the TPP is regulatory harmonisation, which will allow big multinational corporations to not be subject local laws in the countries that are involved in negotiations. Including Malaysia.

If Malaysia insists on enforcing laws—for instance, the Employment Act or the Environmental Act—to curtail the errant practices of these corporations, then they can argue that their profits are being harmed, and drag the Malaysian government to international court. And most likely win.

Second. In the midst of Obama trying to convince his fellow Democrats to give him fast-track authority, an inconspicuous and expertly crafted anti-slavery bill was put forth by the Democratic senator for New Jersey, Robert Menendez.

Menendez’ bill said that the US should not fast-track any trade deal that involves countries with atrocious trafficking records. He meant the TPP, and he meant Malaysia.

Although not saying as much, it seems as if Menendez found in Malaysia a weak spot among the TPP negotiating countries that could be used to derail the entire trade deal.

This is because in 2014, Malaysia was infamously relegated to Tier 3 of the US State Department’s own Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. Importantly, what led to the relegation was not just that human trafficking occurred in Malaysia, but also that the Malaysian government was doing nothing to put a stop to it.

tra4“In the 2012 and 2013 Trafficking in Persons Reports, Malaysia was granted consecutive waivers from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3 on the basis of a written plan to bring itself into compliance with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

“The Trafficking Victims Protection Authorization Act (TVPA) authorizes a maximum of two consecutive waivers. A waiver is no longer available to Malaysia, which is therefore deemed not to be making significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards and is placed on Tier 3,” the TIP report said.

So Obama was left with a conundrum. What could he do? Option 1 would be to kill Menendez’ bill, but a Democratic president convincing Democrats to vote down an anti-slavery bill would look bad. Nobody wants to be that guy.

Option 2 would be to bump Malaysia up on the TIP list, which would possibly look worse. Plus, since Malaysia had boatloads of Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees and migrants drifting on the Andaman Sea at the time, and since the issue had made—and dominated—international headlines, there could be no more inopportune moment to remove Malaysia from Tier 3 of TIP.

Option 3 would be to ‘soften’ the language of the bill. Menendez had agreed to do that before presenting the bill to the US Senate. So instead of excluding Malaysia from TPP outright because of its trafficking record, the bill would allow Malaysia to remain in talks as long as it made “significant efforts” to curtail trafficking activity.

This would probably include “significant efforts” like saving the boat people. It would also probably include “significant efforts” like busting trafficking syndicates and arresting a few henchmen after the ‘sudden’ discovery of mass graves.

Menendez somehow included his bill whole, without the aforementioned ‘softening’, when the Senate went in for the first round of voting. But in all likelihood, it will be softened eventually, voted on again, and passed.

This would mean that Malaysia will only have to be perceived as trying to stop trafficking to allow TPP talks to continue unhindered (and if we have learned anything from Pemandu, it is that perception is greater than reality).

International trade minister Mustapa Mohamed said as much. “Regarding our Tier 3 position on human trafficking, this could be resolved if a Tier 3 country is seen to be taking concrete steps to implement recommendations in the Trafficking in Persons report.”

Also, US assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration Anne Richard is (at the time of writing) in Kuala Lumpur, promising that the US Navy will conduct daily surveillance flights out of Subang Airport to locate migrant boats.

“We will continue conducting flights as necessary to help provide support to regional governments as they work to rescue those stranded at sea and provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable migrants in the region,” Richard said, adding that the US State Department supports Malaysia, along with Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar in their efforts to address the plight of the stranded migrants in the Andaman Sea.

It is not, therefore, beyond the realm of plausibility that Malaysia is only putting on a temporary show of making “significant efforts” to stop trafficking, so as to please the US and not wreck the TPP.

We are, after all, the country that kicked an 18-year-old out of the country to appease China, citing “national security” (in relation to that, since no one really knows how the US-China dispute in the Spratlys is going to turn out, it boggles the mind to see in what positions Malaysia will contort itself the next time a superpower says “dance”).

Meanwhile, expect business as usual with the young trafficked women who are duped, drugged, beaten, raped, and forced to service rich men getting their cheong on in your local brothel, spa, KTV lounge or massage parlour.

Like Najib said, maybe human rights is just an invention.