Myanmar slaves on Thai boats spark controversy


Screenshot from the AP video, showing an imprisoned Myanmar migrant worker on Benjina Island, Indonesia.

Screenshot from the AP video, showing an imprisoned Myanmar migrant worker on Benjina Island, Indonesia.

A year-long investigation by Associated Press reporters has revealed hundreds of Myanmar migrant workers are being used as slaves on fishing boats in Indonesian waters.

The report by Robin McDowell, Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza entitled, AP Investigation: Are slaves catching the fish you buy? examines the fate of hundreds of migrant workers – mostly Myanmar nationals – tricked into working on fishing boats in Indonesian waters under bad conditions, unable to escape.

According to the report by AP, released on March 25, the men interviewed on the Indonesian island village of Benjina were mostly from Myanmar, one of the poorest countries in the world. They were brought to Indonesia through Thailand and forced to fish. Their catch was then shipped back to Thailand, where it entered the global stream of commerce.  Many men are said to have died.

The report, which included video footage, shows men locked up in Benjina and includes men shouting at night from a fishing boat to the reporter that they were being held against their will.

The reporting suggests the workers primarily from Myanmar and Thailand are used on Thai fishing boats and the resulting marine catch ends up in Thailand and on dining tables in the United States and Europe.

The revelations are not new. Thailand’s ranking in the US Trafficking in Persons assessment has fallen and several media reports have covered the abuse of migrant workers in the fishing industry. However, the AP report comes out with more “smoking gun” evidence of slavery in the Southeast Asian fishing industry and covers the issue in depth. Thai fishing boats and their captains are painted as the main culprits in the affair.

Thai reporting on the slavery allegations has resulted in a harsh response from Thai junta leader Prayuth Chanocha.

General Prayuth said the government will summon Channel 3 journalist Thapanee Ietscrchai who has been carrying out her own reporting on the slavery revelations on Indonesia’s Benjina Island.  She reported about hundreds of graves said to belong to Thai fishermen who died allegedly due to the poor conditions or abuse.

“Please don’t escalate this news,” he told the Thai media.

"I tell you Thapanee. Come see our officers. What good does it do to talk on the outside? If I cannot solve this problem because of your report, what would you say? Is it illegal?” said General Prayuth in an angry tirade, according to the Bangkok Post.  

He asked the media not to report on human trafficking without considering how the news will affect the Thailand’s seafood industry and reputation abroad. Millions of dollars in business is at stake, he said.

The Thai leader lashed out at reporters on March 25, saying he would “probably just execute” those who did “not report the truth,” in a straight-faced comment that has further worsened his relations with the media. 

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