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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's push for legislation that would enable the U.S. to strike a major trade deal with 11 other countries has gotten tangled in a debate over Malaysia's record on slave labor, throwing up a last-minute legislative obstacle. Inconveniently for backers of the trade deal, a full-blown humanitarian crisis is erupting in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar, directly connected to the region's reliance on human trafficking in industries as varied as electronics manufacturing, fishing and prostitution.
Last year, Malaysia and Thailand joined North Korea and Saudi Arabia on the State Department’s list of countries that are the worst offenders in forced labor and human trafficking -- formally known as a tier 3 designation. One year later, little has changed, though the importance of the tier 3 designation has surged as a result of the trade debate. the U.S. Senate last week passed legislation declaring that no country that engages in slave labor, such as Malaysia, can be a part of the trade deal. As Malaysia angles for membership in a historic international trade deal of epic scope, it is facing increased scrutiny for its human rights record, yet doing little to change the facts on the ground.
As Malaysia angles for membership in a historic international trade deal of epic scope, it is facing increased scrutiny for its human rights record, yet doing little to change the facts on the ground. In April, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Yun criticized Malaysia’s lack of progress on human trafficking. “The most obvious area is prosecution. Is there enough prosecution [of offenders] considering the incidence of trafficking?” Yun said, suggesting that such prosecutions were inexcusably rare.
This month, more than 139 grave sites were discovered, along with 28 suspected human trafficking camps in the far north of Malaysia, near the Thai border. Multiple bodies were found in each site, leading Malaysian authorities to estimate the number of dead to be well above 100. With Malaysia finding itself engulfed in a migrant crisis, the United Nations has called on it to help rescue tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims stranded at sea and in jungle concentration camps. Malaysia has not only refused, but has rebuffed even seriously participating in discussions. Meanwhile, a top Malaysian minister has said that despite the U.S. Senate's legislation, his government is sure it will be allowed into the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which may explain Malaysia's lack of interest in addressing the human trafficking crisis.