The synod’s Commission for Mission has requested Uniting Church members to engage in letter-writing to the Thai and Australian Governments regarding Burmese asylum seekers being been sold into slavery in Thailand.
In Burma, in October 2012, “ethnic cleansing” and crimes against humanity were committed by security forces against the Rohingya ethnic group. Hundreds of Rohingya were murdered and more than 100,000 fled the country while another 140,000 were left displaced and living in dire conditions.
Violence and discrimination against the Rohingya, who are Muslims, has been fuelled by Buddhist extremists in the region.
The Burmese government calls the Rohingya illegal “Bengali” migrants from Bangladesh. Most of the 1.1 million Rohingya living in Burma’s western Rakhine State are denied citizenship. Human Rights Watch has also alleged ongoing persecution of the largely stateless Rohingya in Arakan State.
Thousands of the Rohingya fled Burma on boats that were intercepted by the Royal Thai Navy. They were then handed over to human traffickers, allegedly by Thai immigration officials, and passed through one of at least three “trafficking camps” in southern Thailand.
Traffickers forced asylum seekers to call relatives in Malaysia and Thailand to demand a ransom of around $2,000 for their return. Those who could not find a relative to pay the ransom were reportedly sold as slaves onto Thai fishing boats or as manual labourers on farms. Some were murdered at the camps and others died of disease.
The UN has since called for an investigation into the reports Thai immigration officials moved refugees from Burma into human trafficking rings.
On 27 January 2014, after pressure from the US Government and the UN, Thai authorities raided one of the trafficking camps and took 531 people into custody.
Thailand has no refugee law and does not allow Rohingya to register asylum claims or to seek protection as refugees, placing the Rohingya in indefinite detention. The government separated families, holding adult men and some male children in immigration detention centres while women and younger children were held in shelters run by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Almost all the 2055 Rohingya who were held in detention have since fled the shelters, escaped or were deported or transferred into the hands of human traffickers.
Justice and International Mission unit director, Dr Mark Zirnsak said the plight of the Rohingya serves as a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities of displaced peoples.
“It is horrific that some of these vulnerable people in our region have been abducted and sold into slavery,” he said.
“We have campaigned for years against slavery on a small part of the Thai fishing fleet, so we are well aware of the dangers those sold into slavery face.”
Slaves on Thai fishing boats are often forced to work 20 hours a day and there are regular reports of murders.
Two journalists, Alan Morison (an Australian from Melbourne) and Chutima Sidasathian (a Thai) are being pursued by the Royal Thai Navy on defamation
charges for republishing a paragraph from Reuters news agency alleging the involvement of naval personnel in the trafficking of Rohingya asylum seekers.
The charges were laid on 16 December 2013 and under Thai law, the two journalists could face up to seven years imprisonment if found guilty.
Efforts by the Thai Human Rights Commission to broker a resolution to the case were stalled by the military coup in Thailand on 22 May 2014.
The current trial date for the two journalists has been set as 18 March 2015.
Dr Zirnsak said that the two journalists are being targeted specifically due to their reporting around the plight of the Rohingya.
“Reuters and other news outlets in Thailand that published the same information have not been charged, indicating that seven years of award-winning coverage of the Rohingya issue has earned Morison and Khun Chutima unjust special treatment,” Dr Zirnsak said.
“We are asking Uniting Church members to write to the Thai authorities seeking that the defamation case against Morison and Khun Chutima be dropped.”
For more information or a copy of the letter-writing action contact the Justice and International Mission Unit on (03) 9251 5271 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.