A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Thai anti-trafficking campaigners face their uncertain futures

The battle against people smugglers in Thailand has taken a huge personal toll on some of those fighting for the rights of Rohingya Muslims, with the futures of three prominent campaigners uncertain.

Words by Krati Garg
 
Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison: taking time out after their long legal fight. PIC: Krati Garg

Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison: taking time out after their long legal fight. PIC: Krati Garg

Ex-pat Australian journalist Alan Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian, known as Khun Oi, were acquitted last year of serious criminal charges that had been laid against them by the Royal Thai Navy, ending a 30-month legal battle.

And one of Thailand’s most senior police investigators, Major General Paween Pongsirin, who played an integral role in exposing those involved in trafficking, including influential figures in Thailand’s military and police, fled the country fearing for his life and is seeking asylum in Australia.

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While the acquittal of the journalists, who had re-published parts of a Reuters story critical of Thai naval forces, was welcomed by human rights organisations and media groups across the world, the proceedings had a long-lasting impact on the pair’s lives. 

The trial and drawn out legal battle affected the journalists both emotionally and financially, forcing the closure of the award-winning online news information and tourism publication Phuketwan that Morison had launched in 2008 and leaving him out of pocket by more than $100,000, according to his estimates.

“It has been very draining,” he told The Citizen while in Melbourne on a recent visit. “People, friends and foes would say ‘why don’t you just apologise? Surely that’s the easy thing to do?’

“And when I came to visit my family in Australia there were people who asked why didn’t I stay. It was very isolating. And we would have remained isolated if it weren’t for the band of supportive media groups and NGOs.”

Major General Paween found himself similarly isolated after his taskforce exposed networks of human traffickers, and implicated officials, who had preyed on displaced Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic groups, who were escaping persecution in Burma and beyond. His investigation led to the arrest of more than 90 people, including politicians, government officials, police and a high-ranking army officer.

“People, friends and foes would say ‘why don’t you just apologise? Surely that’s the easy thing to do?’ ” — Alan Morison, Australian journalist

But the investigation was suddenly abandoned with the 57-year-old career policeman transferred to Thailand’s southern provinces, where Muslim insurgents and traffickers operate and where he believed he would be in grave danger. He quit his post and is seeking asylum. Managing without the support of his family, and unable to communicate in English, he is hoping for a permanent safe haven in Melbourne.

Local human rights advocates including David Manne, of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, have taken up the major-general’s cause, but have declined to comment publicly. 

Meanwhile, the two journalists say they are keeping their options open about future work possibilities.

“First, we need to relax and reconstitute ourselves,” said Morison. “Covering the Rohingya issue for the last eight years, and then the trial, has made us much more serious people than we were.”

He said he is currently considering a book offer as well as writing more generally on the Rohingya people and other issues in Thailand.

Khun Oi, who was recently nominated in a popular Thai magazine as one of seven most-admired people, hopes to continue her PhD, which focuses on Rohingya Muslims, and investigate slavery on fishing boats in Thai waters, a similarly grave issue. She has also been working as a reporter for Channel Seven in Australia and has landed a few assignments with international media groups such as the BBC. She says she is unlikely to work for Reuters in the near future.

Morison and Khun Oi were charged in late 2013 under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act and for alleged defamation related to a single paragraph published on Phuketwan that was sourced from a Reuters story on the Rohingya that was later awarded a Pulitzer prize. Ironically, Khun Oi had contributed to the Reuters story, working as a paid fixer and establishing contacts with locals in a jungle camp.  

The pair were ultimately acquitted of all charges in September, with the time for any appeal to be lodged by Thai prosecutors expiring late last year. Morison said that the judge delivering the verdict seemed surprised by the turnout of supporters for media freedom and Phuketwan during the trial.

The decision was embraced by supporters as a triumph for a free media in a country that has been under military rule for the past two years.

“If it weren’t for the NGOs and lawyers helping us out we would not have been able to even raise the bail money,” Morison said. He and Khun Oi had spent seven hours in a Phuket jail after they were initially arrested in their Phuket office.

Morison, however, is skeptical about the lasting impact of the court’s ruling on Thailand’s media more generally, noting that since the Phuketwan trial many other journalists had been charged under the Computer Crimes Act. “But hopefully the verdict from our trial would be seen as a benchmark for all future charges.”

“We lost our time, energy and mind over silly things these last two years. It was a waste and what for?” — Khun Oi, Thai journalist

Morison remains critical of Reuters’ lack of support throughout the legal battle. “An organisation that wins prizes for delivering such pieces [of journalism] does not follow the same set of ethics when it comes to its own reporters. It acts like another corporate brand.”

And earlier this month, at a Paris conference on the safety of journalists, Khun Oi urged big news organisations to take care of the “little guys” and not leave local freelancers and fixers to face the political fallout alone once international reporters, who are akin to “visiting firemen”,  depart. “The lack of concern for the welfare of freelancers and fixers remains the greatest issue, even as the media industry becomes more diverse and demanding,” she said. 

But Khun Oi argued that being a journalist in Thailand comes with its own baggage. “There are issues around freedom of expression, translation and cultural image, but I am happy that we stood for our principles and now we can concentrate on real work. We lost our time, energy and mind over silly things this last two years. It was a waste and what for?”

Major General Paween, whose actions have been condemned openly by the Thai military, hopes that Canberra will be sympathetic to his application for asylum.

In his only media interview since arriving in Australia, he told the ABC’s 7.30 program in December: “I worked in the trafficking area to help human beings who were in trouble. I wasn’t thinking of a personal benefit but now it is me who is in trouble. I believe there should be some safe place for me, somewhere on this earth to help me.”

Morison said that while he and Khun Oi had followed the Major General’s case closely, they had no direct involvement in it.

“It would be great if Australia grants him asylum but, from my own experience, often these issues are dealt with behind closed doors. Australia has openly condemned the issue of human trafficking but it would rather focus on bilateral economic and trade relations with Thailand than tell them how to manage human trafficking.”

Shifting political circumstances in Burma also appeared to have helped slow the exodus of Rohingya men, women and children for now, according to Morison. 

“During this time of the year we get alerted to thousands of boats arriving near Thai waters but for the first time in years, there are no boats. [The incoming democratic leader] Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to see what she needed to do was remarkable. 

“We hope that, with the best interests of Myanmar as her clear priority, she will find a way to ease the ethnic cleansing and the endemic racism that exists in Burma.”

Having closely observed Burma’s stance on the persecuted minority over recent years, Morison believes that the economic downfall of Rakhine State, which housed the majority of Rohingya Muslims, might be another reason for the decrease in the number of boats. “Looks like the Arakhinese have realised that the Rohingya might have a vital role in boosting their economy.”

The reasons for the vanishing boats could be myriad and the situation only temporary, added Morison, though he remains optimistic. “We see the glass half-full and we may not have closed Phuketwan without feelings of guilt if there had still been boats on the water.”

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