IN May 2015, screaming headlines confirmed the discovery of 139 bodies buried in the jungles of Wang Kelian in the Malaysian state of Perlis, not far from the Thai border.
The graves revealed a hidden network of jungle camps used by traffickers to hold their captives as they negotiated payment terms and ransom demands. In the graves were mostly the bodies of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in neighbouring Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladeshis, two races that routinely fall victim to trafficking on this side of the world.
The grim find followed a similar discovery of 32 shallow graves just weeks prior in Thailand, in what was described as a “waiting area” for illegal migrants before they are sent across the border to Malaysia.
Both the discoveries were made during the infamous Southeast Asian humanitarian crisis, when thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees boarded rickety boats to cross illegally into Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, many of whom ended up stranded at sea.
A firestorm of protests ensued at home and across the world, with human rights advocates calling for heads to roll in Malaysia. But despite suggestions that said Malaysians were likely involved, not one national from the Southeast Asian nation has been charged over the two-year-old incident.
Months ago in March, the Malaysian Parliament was told the reason why 12 local policemen initially detained over the incident were released was due to a lack of “strong evidence”. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also home minister, said instead, four foreigners had been charged – one Bangladeshi, two Burmese and one Thai. All were convicted and sentenced to jail for between three to 10 years each, he said, except for the Thai, whose case was still ongoing.
Considering the outcome, there was little surprise this week when activists lashed out after Malaysia was given an upgrade in the 2017 Trafficking-in-Persons (TIP) Report released by the US Department of State.
Although the department kept Malaysia in Tier 2 for the third year running, it promoted the country from the rank of Tier 2 Watch List, in which there are three criteria that distinguishes it from Tier 2.
These include: countries where the number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing; where there is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat trafficking from the previous year; and where the determination that the country is making effort to comply with minimum standards was based on said country’s commitment to take additional future steps over the next year.
Explaining its reason for the upgrade, the department said: “The government of Malaysia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore, Malaysia was upgraded to Tier 2.”
The department also commended Malaysian enforcement, saying trafficking investigations, prosecutions and convictions have increased from the previous year, and noting that a total of 17 employers were convicted last year for unauthorised retention of migrant passports, compared to zero the previous year.
In response, Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s deputy director for campaigns in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, described the upgrade as “shocking”, citing the lack of accountability from local officials over the Wang Kelian graves.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, called it a whitewashing of Malaysia’s “poor to mediocre” record on human trafficking.
“The Malaysia government’s failure to prosecute any Malaysian officials for their involvement in the #Rohingya smuggling camps is a testament to odious impunity to commit trafficking abuses, and demonstrates a fundamental lack of political will by the Malaysian government,” he said.
He also thumbed his nose at the department’s observation that investigations were still ongoing during the reporting period, which had closed on March 31, calling it “a joke”.
“For all intents and purposes, the investigations have finished in Malaysia and Thailand,” he pointed out.
The department in its report noted the Wang Kelian discoveries had “fueled reports [that] corrupt officials facilitated migrant smuggling” but added that investigations were still ongoing during the reporting period. It also pointed to how Malaysia and Thailand have “continued to cooperate in the search for additional suspects”.
According to recent reports, Malaysia is waiting to extradite three of its nationals currently held in Thailand who are said to be masterminds in the case.
But Malaysian opposition politician Charles Santiago, who is also Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights chairman, insisted Malaysia’s efforts thus far did not merit its upgrade in the TIP.
“The basis for Malaysia’s upgrade clearly lacks credibility. I can understand if the government has done something significant about the Wang Kelian incident.
“It was the biggest discovery of mass graves in the country in recent years yet not one Malaysian enforcement personnel has been brought to court,” he was quoted saying in Free Malaysia Today.
He said the 17 employers convicted for holding on to migrant passports was just a “drop in the ocean”.
“Anecdotal examples like the conviction of the 17 employers cannot be used to justify Malaysia’s upgrade when there are glaring examples on how we’ve failed to tackle human trafficking.”
Olivia Enos, human rights advocate, writer and researcher in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, similarly expressed disappointment at the result.
“In my opinion, for reasons cited in my @ForbesOpinion article, #Malaysia may not have merited its upgrade,” she wrote on Twitter.
Enos was referring to her April Forbes article, in which she had flagged Malaysia as one country to watch when the TIP is released this month.
She cited the Wang Kelian mass graves case, and also pointed to Malaysia’s unexpected upgrade from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List in 2015, and how it was placed again in the same tier last year.
Malaysia’s 2015 upgrade from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List was largely believed to be politically-motivated, with critics saying it was to allow the country to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with the US, seen as crucial to the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. Congress-approved legislation then had prohibited such deals with Tier 3 ranking countries.
According to Matthew Smith, Fortify Rights co-founder and chief executive, this year’s result again suggests the report was being exploited as a “political tool”.
Meanwhile, Malaysian leaders have been quick to tout Malaysia’s TIP upgrade as proof of the country’s commitment to putting an end to human trafficking.
“Malaysia’s collective efforts in combating human trafficking locally and regionally is bearing fruit as the country improved its position in the international Trafficking in Persons Report 2017,” Prime Minister Najib Razak wrote on his social media channels.
“Well done to those who worked tirelessly to achieve this. We remain committed to stopping trafficking, protecting the victims and prosecuting the traffickers,” he said.
Youth minister Khairy Jamaluddin commended fellow Cabinet member Zahid Hamidi, saying the deputy prime minister’s work is now showing results.
In his response, Zahid said it was due to “combined efforts” by all stakeholders.
Malaysia hopes to achieve Tier 1 status by 2020.