What the Rohingya slave labour and Ko Tao scandals reveal

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Both the Rohingya slave labour scandal, exposed by the Guardian newspaper and other media, and the police handling of the brutal murders of two British tourists on Ko Tao, reveal a very nasty side of Thai society.

While large numbers of decent Thai people would condemn the human trafficking, systematic rapes, imprisonment on large cargo ships and the eventual enslavement in the fishing industry, of hundreds of Rohingya refugees from Burma, much more needs to be done. Thai organisations and political groups should be mobilising and campaigning over this issue and trade unions should be making a stand against the shocking labour conditions in the fishing industry.

There might be sympathy in Thai society for those at the sharp end of human trafficking, when it is exposed in the media, but deep-rooted racism and nationalism, which infects most Thais, means that when the issue of welcoming the refugees and re-settling them in normal Thai society is raised, there is widespread hostility. This spills over into the blatant disregard for the plight of migrant workers from neighbouring countries. When not being trafficked, they are abused, beaten and robbed of their wages by employers and members of the security forces. Government posters reinforce derogatory views about migrants, accusing them of crimes and of carrying diseases. Ordinary Thais routinely use racist terms like “Kak”, “Yuan”, “Farang”, “Aye-Meud” (Darky) etc. to refer to people of other ethnicities.

This poisonous racism is responsible for the continuing miscarriage of justice over the Ko Tao murders. The two Burmese migrant workers, who are in court facing serious charges, are the “usual scape-goats”. There is also an appalling attitude among many Thais towards European women and the wearing of normal swimwear on the beach, as though it was an indication of “loose morals”.

Yet just look at the lack of morals in Thai society. We have a thriving sex industry where young people are exploited and trafficked. Thais are the predominant clients and beneficiaries of this industry. The country’s rulers, past and present, including Prayut, Abhisit and Taksin, are usually mass murderers who will never face trial for human rights abuses. Corruption and exploitation by the rich and powerful is the order of the day.

The root cause of this appalling situation is that there is far too little opposition to authoritarianism in all its forms. This is a vicious circle because when individual people are brave enough to speak out, they are subject to repression. The left is weak, the trade unions are disorganised or mainly apolitical and the pro-democracy Red Shirts have been demobilised by the UDD and Taksin. The National Human Rights Commission is staffed by members of the security forces, fanatical royalists and reactionaries. The NGOs are either with the military or are only interested in campaigning for fragmented single issues.

Fundamentally it is the weakness of the left and organised labour which accounts for a lack of strong opposition. Not only is the opposition to authoritarianism too weak, but there is almost no opposition to nationalism and racism in society. In such circumstances, ordinary Thai working people are tied to the mainstream ideology of the ruling class. Karl Marx once commented that British workers would never be able to liberate themselves until they got rid of racist ideas about the Irish. We could say similarly that ordinary working Thais will not be able to liberate themselves until they reject nationalism and racism. Throughout Europe today in an era of austerity, nationalism and racism are used to weaken movements opposed to neoliberalism and the impoverishment of workers. It is socialists and left-wing organisations which form the core of opposition to racism and nationalism in Europe.

In Thailand we desperately need to revive the left in a struggle for democracy and against national chauvinism.

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