By Oh Han Siang, Year 2, CNM
Human trafficking is a serious problem in Southeast Asia. Virgin girls from rural tribes in Cambodia are deceived and sometimes, even sold by their own parents, to work as sex workers in Thailand. These girls often get saddled with a never-ending debt burden and are “used” till they are infected with HIV, after which, they are abandoned on the streets. Young boys similarly get abducted to work in miserable conditions on Thai fishing boats out in international waters. These boys are transferred from one boat to another, never seeing the shore again in their lives. Ultimately, when they succumb to accidents or exhaustion, their bodies are thrown overboard, feeding the fishes that they help catch.
These are some of the horrifying tales a group of NUS students and I learnt, as we travelled from Siem Reap and Phnom Penn in Cambodia to Chiang Mai and Bangkok in Thailand, during the recent summer break, as part of the FASS summer program – OdySEA 2013. Along the way, we met with many non-governmental organisations such as the Somaly Mam Foundation and SISHA in Phnom Penn and Foundation for Women and Live Our Lives in Bangkok, that actively seek to protect human trafficking survivors, prevent further incidents from happening, prosecute human traffickers and partner with governments and the larger civil society to help address the human trafficking problem. We even managed to meet with the United States Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney, in the US embassy in Bangkok and Paul Buckley from the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) to debate about intergovernmental anti-trafficking efforts.
In the end, we came to a better understanding of the various causes and consequences of human trafficking, and how both a top down and bottom up approach is necessary in tackling it. More importantly, we came to the conclusion that sometimes public policies enacted do not necessarily translate to actual implementations on the ground. Conversely, we should also not tarnish all sex workers as being forcefully trafficked; some do genuinely enjoy their profession and that anti-trafficking laws should not just focus solely on sex trafficking. Our professor, Dr Kevin McGahan, who teaches the module PS3880E Topics in PS: Human Trafficking in Southeast Asia, was wonderful in arranging our fieldtrip and moderated our dialogue sessions.
One particular dialogue session we had was with MTV EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking) in Bangkok, which was a non-profit independent media outlet that sought to raise general public awareness about the human trafficking problem. MTV EXIT has in the past, brought together various international artists such as Super Junior, Simple Plan and Jason Mraz, producing music videos and concerts that promote awareness among the young people in SEA about human trafficking.
Through the dialogue session with MTV EXIT, I learnt that communication professionals are sought after as well in the non-profit sector and that many of the concepts and theories we learnt in CNM are actually applicable in helping to solve societal ills too, for example, through communicating and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships between the government and NGOs.
Interestingly, the human trafficking trade can similarly be analysed through a culture-centred approach (Mohan, 2012) (Visit Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/CARECNM) as well. Structures such as porous borders between countries, and vague local anti-trafficking laws have facilitated the human trafficking problem. On the other hand, structural marginalisation through the deprivation of economic resources and education for rural communities has likewise compounded the problem. More importantly, the deep-rooted culture in those countries such as corruption, a need to save ‘face’, and the fact that if you are raped, you are seen as deserving of it as you have accumulated bad karma, have allowed human trafficking to persist. As such, the key to effectively tackle human trafficking lies in the power of human agency whereby individuals stand up and denounce such abuses. The collaboration of local NGOs and governments today due to the push by concerned individuals stand testament to this fact.
Looking forward, this summer experience has left me wanting to use the knowledge I have gained, and will gain, as a CNM student to help push for greater public awareness on societal issues. I encourage other students to learn more about the problem of human trafficking. Singapore is surprisingly not exempt from it. And perhaps, you might just take another look at the freshly caught Thai fish you are planning to cook for dinner tonight.
NUS students visited the US embassy in Bangkok to discuss human trafficking