SYDNEY — The U.S. government’s latest annual Trafficking in Persons report, published on June 30, generated the usual mix of dismay and relief among countries named. In Asia, countries including Myanmar responded angrily to their downgrading in the influential rankings, which can affect their standing as U.S. trade partners among other aspects of their ties with Washington.
The Philippines — despite, as the report noted, having a “significant problem” of sex trafficking — was upgraded to the top tier of countries for its efforts to counteract trafficking. The list, which this year rated 190 countries — two more than last year — includes countries which the state department says “fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards,” a level attained by only two other Asian countries, South Korea and Taiwan.
The Philippines, a long-standing U.S. ally, recently elected as president Rodrigo Duterte, a mayor from the southern city of Davao, who described himself as a socialist and has criticized the U.S. Duterte has said he will seek a rapprochement with China over their competing claims in the South China Sea — despite China’s building of artificial islands in the disputed territory.
The surprise promotion of Manila — perhaps meant as a reminder from Washington to Manila about who its real friends are — echoed previous TiP assessments in which countries such as Myanmar, where forced labor and recruitment of children to the national army and local militias have been widely reported, received upgrades that were seen as motivated more by geopolitics than by considered analysis.
The Obama administration’s “Asia pivot,” an attempt to enhance diplomatic and commercial ties with the world’s most economically dynamic region and to counter the growing sway of China, saw a thawing of ties with Myanmar. As well as relaxing most of its economic sanctions on the country, the U.S. quickly lifted Myanmar out of the bottom tier of its trafficking rankings under the quasi civilian government of former President Thein Sein.
But the 2016 report saw Myanmar demoted to Tier 3, the bottom rank, alongside countries such as North Korea and Sudan — despite free and fair elections in 2015 that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy take power earlier this year.
People from Myanmar migrating to Thailand and Malaysia “are subjected to forced labor, primarily in fishing and other labor intensive industries,” the report said.
Thailand’s fishing industry has long been accused of utilizing virtual slaves, mostly illegal immigrants from Cambodia and Myanmar who are duped or trafficked into the industry. A year ago, the grim discovery of trafficker camps and dozens of corpses of trafficking victims in jungles along the Thai-Malaysia frontier saw widespread condemnation of both countries’ attempts to curb trafficking.
Those revelations came too late to prevent Malaysia’s promotion to Tier 2 of the TiP rankings in 2015, a move that was seen as linked to U.S.-led negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. A country must be Tier 2 or above in the TIP rankings to gain free trade access to the U.S. market, and Malaysia became one of the 12 countries to sign up to the TPP last year. Even so, Malaysia remained on the Tier 2 watchlist this year.
The U.S. ambassador to Malaysia described the country’s progress on meeting requirements for an upgrade as “quite uneven,” but Tenaganita, a non-government organization that promotes migrants’ rights in Malaysia, said it was surprised Malaysia had not been downgraded to Tier 3.
Another U.S. ally, Thailand, was thrown a lifeline of sorts this year — upgraded from the lowest ranking to the Tier 2 “watch list.” Another year for Thailand in Tier 3 could have resulted in possible sanctions and in turn prompted pressure for the EU to review access for Thailand’s $1bn a year fisheries exports to Europe.
The promotion comes as the U.S. tries to coax Thailand’s junta into ceding power to a civilian government and ahead of its Aug. 7 referendum on a new constitution, and was justified by Bangkok’s moves to step up arrests of traffickers and better monitor fishing fleets.
Major Gen. Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, deputy spokesman for the military government, said the government was pleased “because our efforts to tackle the human trafficking issue have been reflected in this report. But it is not the end of our efforts, because we cannot be too complacent.”
Sam Zarifi, regional director for Asia at the International Commission of Jurists said that the U.S. is “using a carrot-and-stick approach with Thailand” in response to the government’s recent moves to address human trafficking.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denied that the TiP report was influenced by politics. “There are some tough calls. In the end they come down to an element of discretion, but not much,” he said.
Unlike the Philippines, Japan, another key U.S. ally and the world’s third biggest economy, did not appear to benefit from political favoritism in the TiP report. Tokyo was kept at Tier 2, as it has been for some years, partly because “traffickers use fraudulent marriages between foreign women and Japanese men to facilitate the entry of women into Japan for forced prostitution in bars, clubs, brothels, and massage parlors,” the 2016 TiP report said.
Contributing writer Marwaan Macan-Markar in Bangkok and Nikkei staff writer CK Tan in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article.Show