Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) requested regular updates from the State Department on the Malaysian government’s inquiry into last year’s discovery of mass graves on its soil.
Cardin asked for routine reports on the aftermath of the findings in a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, after noting Congress is considering closer economic ties with Malaysia—via the Trans Pacific Partnership.
The tombs, which were found in May 2015 along the Malaysian-Thailand border, contained 139 migrant slave laborers.
“I would just make a request–that because of the sensitivity of Malaysia, and the fact that there’s pending business in the Congress involving Malaysia–that this committee receive regular updates as to what’s happening in Malaysia on these investigations,” Cardin noted.
Congress looks set set to consider passing the TPP during this year’s lame duck session.
Cardin made his request while hitting out at the State Department for not downgrading Malaysia in this year’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.
Malaysia was last upgraded to “Tier 2” in the 2015 TIP report, weeks after Congress voted to ban “Tier 3” countries from the TPP.
Reuters reported in August 2015–just days after the rankings were released–that political appointees interfered in that year’s TIP designations to an unprecedented degree. The meddling impacted Malaysia’s ranking.
“It seems to me that what has happened during this reporting period, it’s hard to justify the fact that we did not downgrade them to Tier 3,” Cardin noted on Tuesday.
“There’s going to be requested action in this Congress, in a positive way, in regards to Malaysia,” he added. “I think it’s important that we know what the status of their efforts to combat trafficking currently is.”
Cardin and a colleague, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), both noted on Tuesday that Malaysian officials have been accused of complicity in the deaths of the laborers discovered, but that none have thus far have been convicted with any crimes, or even charged with homicide. They also expressed concerns about Malaysia being a hotspot for human trafficking.
Those concerns were broadly shared just days ago by a lawmaker in Malaysia. According to a local media report, Malaysian Parliamentarian Steven Sim urged his government to act on human trafficking, not just to “please the Americans.”
“Despite the massive network of insider syndicates making up to [$250 million] from human trafficking activities over more than a decade, with law enforcers and deputized citizen corps being implicated in domestic and international investigations, discovery of death camps and mass graves in our northern border, conviction has been very slow,” Kim said.
Menendez also said Tuesday that last year’s decision to upgrade Malaysia may have led to unjustifiable action taken this year, referring specifically to Thailand’s rise to a “Tier 2” ranking. The senator said that he will “consider reforms, legislatively” to restore confidence in the TIP ranking process.