U.S. Criticizes Myanmar Over Human Trafficking

By Emmarie Huetteman
Published on June 30, 2016 in The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Thursday listed Myanmar as among the worst offenders in human trafficking, consigning a country President Obama only four years ago brought in from the diplomatic cold to the same ranking as Iran, North Korea and Syria.

The designation, contained in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, came just weeks after the Treasury Department lifted a broad array of sanctions on Myanmar, including those applying to state-run banks and businesses. Senior officials argued then that although the country’s human rights record was not perfect, its leaders deserved to be rewarded for their steps toward democratization. Relaxing the sanctions, they said, would serve as an incentive for the government to further improve its behavior.

American officials said Myanmar had not met expectations for improvement, though they said its efforts had been “significant.” The determination could have potentially damaging effects on a relationship that was just showing signs of thaw.

The Obama administration re-established diplomatic ties with Myanmar in 2012, after a lengthy overture by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the country’s ruling generals, as well as to the pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

In November 2012, just after he was re-elected, President Obama made a landmark visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, with Mrs. Clinton. He was back two years later for an Asian summit meeting, but by then, there were already signs of backsliding by Myanmar’s rulers, particularly in their treatment of the Muslim minority population, known as the Rohingya.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate and former political prisoner, became the leader of Myanmar this year, part of a political sea-change that began in 2011 with the reopening of the country’s Parliament.

In May, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a significant diplomatic moment between the United States and Myanmar. But Mr. Kerry also pressed her on the country’s treatment of the Rohingya.

The State Department said in its report that the conscription of children by the country’s military and the widespread use of forced labor, including the sex trafficking of women and girls, remained serious problems in Myanmar. While the government has continued to prosecute and raise awareness about trafficking, it said Myanmar had not done enough to hold civilian officials responsible, a core issue as it appears the problem may be shifting to the private sphere rather than being resolved.

Thet Naung, a spokesman for the Myanmar police’s anti-trafficking division, dismissed the report’s findings, saying the country has improved its efforts in recent years, particularly in education and prevention, as well as the prosecution of traffickers.

“This is their point of view,” Mr. Naung said, saying the country is working to combat human trafficking. “We do our best without taking a rest on this issue.”

He attributed the country’s problems largely to poverty, which he said has driven people to neighboring countries in search of higher wages and left them especially vulnerable to forced labor. The gender imbalance in China is also to blame, he said, driving the demand for brides from nearby countries such as Myanmar.

Human rights advocates applauded the decision to downgrade Myanmar, as well as Uzbekistan, where sex trafficking and forced labor — including by the government — are common.

But they expressed concerns about other ratings, such as the upgrade of Thailand and the decision not to downgrade Malaysia after the discovery last year of mass graves believed to contain trafficking victims along the border between the two countries. Kristen Abrams, acting director of the anti-trafficking coalition Atest, objected in particular to what many advocates saw as an ill-advised choice to promote Malaysia from its bottom ranking in last year’s report.

“President Obama has made significant efforts to combat human trafficking and forced labor over the past eight years, but his legacy on modern slavery may be overshadowed by the politicization of last year’s TIP report and failure to make a strong course correction this year,” Ms. Abrams said. “To prevent this from happening in the future, Congress should intervene and ensure that the State Department bases its rankings of countries’ anti-trafficking efforts on credible evidence, not politics.”

Susan Coppedge, the State Department’s official responsible for human trafficking issues, disputed the notion that politics plays a role in determining their rankings. She noted that Malaysia had seen an increase in the number of ongoing prosecutions and convictions over the past year, but that hardly signaled that its problems have been resolved.

“Malaysia still has a human trafficking problem,” she said. Its placement on the report’s “watch list,” she said, “does not obviate that or say that it has gone away.”

Afghanistan was also among the nations to be placed on the watch list, meaning it is being monitored because it did not prove it is continuing to strengthen its anti-trafficking efforts. The report cited information recently uncovered by the United Nations and nonprofit organizations, as well as The New York Times, that the Afghan Local Police has sexually abused children.

Unveiling the report, which provides an annual assessment of government efforts to fight human trafficking around the world, Mr. Kerry said on Thursday that “it’s outrageous that even today the magnitude of the human trafficking challenge cannot be overstated.”

Among the 188 countries that the report examines is the United States. While it placed among the top-ranked countries, it continues to have problems with forced labor and sex trafficking, the report said. Many of its victims came from Mexico and the Philippines last year.