Thailand and human trafficking
© Getty Images

Thailand just entered its second year on the State Department's list of states with the worst records of combating human trafficking.

The State Department released its annual 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report on July 27; the report categorizes countries into three tiers according to their level of compliance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. In 2014, Thailand was automatically downgraded to Tier 3, the lowest ranking, after four years at Tier 2. Tier 2 countries do not comply fully but demonstrate significant efforts to do so; after four years at Tier 2 without improvement, countries are automatically downgraded to Tier 3, at which point sanctions may be imposed. 


Trafficked persons in Thailand range from domestic servants and fishermen to sex slaves and factory workers. Many hail from neighboring countries and ethnic and religious minorities within Thailand, and their emancipation is not a priority for the government of Thailand's ruling general turned Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power in a military coup d'etat last year. 

According to sources close to the matter, diplomats within the State Department tried to overrule the conclusions of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (or J/TIP, which authors the reports) in order to keep Thailand off the list of the world's worst human trafficking violators. According to sources close to J/TIP, for the first time in its history the office is now losing more disputes than it is winning, and some analysts think trade and political considerations are overshadowing America's commitment to end human trafficking. Although J/TIP is nominally an independent research body, the State Department gets the last word on whether to approve or overrule its recommendations. Whitewashing by local embassies and factions within the State Department succeeded in many other cases: China, India and Mexico all stayed at Tier 2 despite J/TIP's recommendations, while Malaysia, Cuba and Uzbekistan were upgraded to Tier 2 after disputes by the State Department. 

Thailand's Tier 3 status allows Washington to impose sanctions to encourage compliance with international norms. Allowed sanctions include an end to certain types of US aid, as well as the withdrawal of U.S. support for loans to Thailand from the IMF and World Bank. Last year, President Obama issued a special waiver for Thailand, exempting the Southeast Asian country from the economic and diplomatic consequences of the report's conclusions. The Executive now has 90 days from the publication date of the report to decide whether to impose sanctions on Thailand or to issue another waiver. Washington should not waver. 

The Thai economy is in a fragile state and it would not take much pressure from the United States to push the country back on the path to democracy. Thailand's record on human trafficking is an opportunity for Washington to apply pressure on the military government in Bangkok over a range of issues such as civil liberties, human rights and the urgent need for democratic elections. 

General Prayuth overthrew the democratic government of Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22, 2014; shortly thereafter, Thailand's National Legislative Assembly named him prime minister. Standing as sole candidate before an Assembly handpicked by him, the vote was unanimous. He promised to hold elections by the end of 2015, before postponing them to 2016 and then to 2017. Prayuth's coup was the nineteenth in Thailand's unruly political history and a return to democracy is unlikely without action by the United States. 

Over the last year, Prayuth has consolidated power through a series of decrees restricting civil liberties and spreading fear via exemplary sentences for prominent pro-democracy activists.  Prayuth has packed his cabinet and the legislature with military officers loyal to him and is laying the groundwork for a strong, authoritarian state. 

On the day of Prayuth's coup, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce (R-Calif.) issued the following statement

Persistent military intervention in Thailand’s politics has only weakened its democratic institutions. Today’s coup will only perpetuate the deep political divisions that have gripped Thailand for almost a decade. I call on the Thai military to avoid violence, exercise restraint, and put in place a plan to return to democratic rule as quickly as possible.

The plan that Royce called for last year is nowhere on the horizon and the United States has made no serious effort to push for Thailand's return to democracy.  Ignoring Thailand's abysmal record on human trafficking, civil liberties and democracy while admonishing other leaders to respect international norms is toxic to the credibility of American foreign policy. The threat of sanctions in response to Thailand's atrocious record on human trafficking is the perfect pressure point to compel Prayuth and his junta to repeal its repressive decrees and finally set a date for free and fair elections.

Held is a financial consultant currently living in Geneva, Switzerland.