msa August 15, 2013

Channel4 News

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Our investigation into the mass trafficking of Rohingya from Burma last week generated a huge response on social media sites.

The film documented how Rohingya, a much-persecuted ethnic Muslim group in Burma, are crammed into ships, taken to remote Thai islands where they are imprisoned and ransomed off to friends and relatives in neighbouring countries.

In our report we showed how a Thai national park called Tarutao Island was being used as underground transit lounge by traffickers and we also interviewed a member of a criminal gang who said that bribes were regularly paid to police and military units to look the other way.

We expected a strong reaction to our report from the media and government officials in Thailand but surprisingly perhaps, we have had to wait some time to get it.

The first ripple of a response began on Tuesday morning when a popular morning show called This Morning’s Stories on Thailand’s Channel 3 aired parts of our report – although their picture editors recut our package into something we barely recognised.

The hosts gave a running commentary. “There is a story accusing Thailand of using Tarutao Island as a prison in the sea… let’s have a look at how they reported on this.” A brief description of our allegations followed.

The next day, This Morning’s Stories returned to our “nightmare island” story with a new development. They had some footage, shot the day before, of the chief government official, Governor Nuachai Jira-aipirak, taking local journalists over to Tarutao for a walkabout.

His attempt to reassure the public seemed to backfire when Governor Jira-aipirak acknowledged the presence of human traffickers in the area. “They only use Satun (Province) as a transit point,” he reasoned. The governor then issued a list of denials and clarifications.

He said that no public officials in his district were guilty of bribe-taking. He suggested Taruato Island was too big to patrol properly then added: “Sometimes things happen that we don’t see.”

Yet This Morning’s hosts, Sorayth Sunatsanajinda and Pitchayatan Chanpud, were not about to take that lying down.

We have to investigate the claim that Thai officials were taking protection bribes,” said Mr Sunatsanajinda . “The governor says they are only using Satun as a transit point but if you look at the (island prison), it was built strongly and properly, using black rubber sheeting to protect them from the rain – not a bamboo roof.

There are 7 tents all together, with a kitchen and gas cookers, plates and bowls, mosquito nets and mattresses. Each tent is 5 metres wide and 15 metres long”.

It was Ms Chanpud’s time to contribute: “The governor admitted that this was an organised process. There must be brokers at the start and the end of the process.” “Ahh,” exclaimed Mr Sunatsanajijda. “So (the story) is true, isn’t it? Now we have to find out any official involvement in this.”

There was another item on Thailand’s Channel 7 about our story. The presenter said the Thai foreign minister, Surapong Tovichakchaikul, will bring it up our allegations with his Burmese counterpoint at an upcoming regional meeting.

Internet discussion boards were clogged with comments about Tarutao. Many contributors demanded that the traffickers be brought to justice – others wanted officials in Satun province investigated for graft.

I thought this comment from Uncle 60 on the site was interesting. He wrote: “Any country whose media report on the Rohingya should be forced to take them. Thailand has had them for a long time. When third countries (like the UK) take refugees, they only take the educated ones and leave the rest to Thailand.”

We got an appreciative comment from Zodiac 28: “It is good to expose this story to the world. The more the better… we might lose our reputation but it’s worth it.”

However, we are still waiting for a comment from the national government here in Bangkok. Apparently, we caught the Thai Foreign Ministry – which handles international journalists’ enquires – at a busy time, but we will let you know when we get something.

This article originally appears on Channel4 News: