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Smuggling in Southeast Asia

By David Swartzentruber
AseanAffairs   13 July 2010

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By coincidence, today’s news had two stories describing that age-old method of commerce that still flourishes in the developing world and elsewhere-smuggling.

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, police were looking for stolen cars and upon entering a warehouse not only found 42 cars but a menagerie of animals that included a number of protected species. Among the species discovered were leopard cats, albino pygmy monkeys and a rare pair of birds of paradise.

On the Cambodian side of Thailand, the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, concluded after taking with 400 Cambodians deported from Thailand that about 25 percent of those deported were victims of human trafficking.

This kind of activity is nothing new along Thai borders. The country is surrounded by poor countries (Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Myanmar) who want out of their miserable conditions and are easy prey to human traffickers.

Cambodia says it has educated its border police and they have educated residents along the border about the illicit trade in human life. However,

On the Malaysian border, most of the smuggling is not in humans but in animals and untaxed goods such as wine, to make a profit, and evade Thailand’s sky-high import duties on wine. One of the species that news media most frequently report being seized is the lowly pangolin. The pangolin is an armadillo-like creature that is apparently thought by Chinese to convey health benefits to the consumer when cooked and served on a plate. It seems that the Chinese feel that a lot of wild animals possess healthful properties when eaten. From time to mime, Thai border and customs police do seize a truckload of the pangolins bound for China through Thailand and return them to the wild.

The root of the problem in human trafficking is of course, poverty, and the Cambodia trafficking scene has been extensively reported in print and video by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff.

The deportees are poor, of course, and when they return to Cambodia, they have little social support and may fall prey to traffickers again.

On the Burma (Myanmar) border the biggest item right now is the flood of methamphetamine destined for Thailand and beyond. The main culprit here is reported to be the ethnic group armies that need funds to purchase weapons and ammunition to fight Burma’s army. In perspective, the drug smuggling situation is less severe than the traffic along the Mexico-United States border, but it certainly can’t be overlooked.

Thailand’s central location in Southeast Asia makes it vulnerable to a wide range of smuggling activities and this column hasn’t even touched on what smugglers attempt to bring through Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. That’s another story.

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