Thai general profited from migrants he was supposed to keep out

Army "Big Shot" Manas Kongpan arriving in court in Bangkok in November 2015. Manas, who sat at the apex of Thailand's grisly trade in humans, was sentenced to 27 years in prison on Wednesday.
Army "Big Shot" Manas Kongpan arriving in court in Bangkok in November 2015. Manas, who sat at the apex of Thailand's grisly trade in humans, was sentenced to 27 years in prison on Wednesday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BANGKOK • An army "Big Shot" whose influence seeped across the south, Lieutenant-General Manas Kongpan sat at the apex of Thailand's grisly trade in humans, raking in an untold fortune to keep prying eyes off the trafficking route.

As the number of desperate Rohingya and Bangladeshis shuttled through the trafficking operation shot up, so did Manas' rank in the Thai military.

But the silver-haired general was condemned to 27 years in prison last Wednesday for profiting from the trade, an extraordinarily rare conviction of a senior member of an army that dominates the kingdom.

The 61-year-old's downfall was hastened in 2015 after investigators uncovered secret jungle prisons in the south where traffickers starved and tortured migrants while holding them for ransom.

The discovery exposed Thailand's horrifying role in a criminal operation that shifted victims from Myanmar to Malaysia, and forced the ruling junta to launch a belated crackdown.

Police followed a money trail that led straight to Manas, an army hardliner with a passion for bullfighting.

Manas was first highlighted as a suspect in early 2015 after 98 famished Rohingya were found in trucks in Nakhon Si Thammarat, stopped by a random police checkpoint. Provincial police - aided by anti-trafficking non-governmental organisation Freeland - used the drivers' cellphones to trace their regular route.

The trail carved through Thailand's southern neck from coastal Ranong, where boatloads of migrants arrived from Myanmar, to malaria-infested camps near the Malaysian border, where they were held in appalling conditions.

Phone and e-banking records from the drivers led to key trafficker Sunan Saengthong, a Ranong politician and businessman who had deposited nearly US$600,000 (S$820,600) in accounts belonging to Manas.

In May 2015, police found more bank slips revealing that Sunan's nephew had also transferred huge sums to Manas, including some US$400,000 in just over a month. Sunan was jailed for 35 years in a separate trial but his nephew Nattaphat Saengthong and others remain at large.

Around the time of the money transfers, Manas served as a top commander of Thailand's southern security arm. His job was to enforce its controversial "push-back" policy - which meant turning around boats of stateless Rohingya who were trying to flee persecution in Myanmar.

But he used this position to do just the opposite, according to last week's verdict, which exposed a matrix of collusion between state officials and businessmen who profited from trafficking.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2017, with the headline 'Thai general profited from migrants he was supposed to keep out'. Print Edition | Subscribe