BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand on Friday said it would indict 72 people including a senior army officer over human trafficking after the plight of desperate Myanmar and Bangladesh migrants stranded at sea triggered an international outcry over the grim trade.
The move comes days before the release of an annual United States report ranking nations on their anti-trafficking efforts which last relegated Thailand to the bottom rung.
The kingdom has long been accused of ignoring official complicity in the multi-million dollar trafficking trade which had until recent months flourished through its southern provinces and onto Malaysia – the desired destination of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.
But a Thai crackdown in May led to the unravelling of vast people-smuggling networks with thousands of migrants abandoned in open waters and jungle camps by traffickers, a crisis that eventually forced a Southeast Asia-wide response.
On Friday a spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) of Thailand said it had issued an order to indict 72 people charged on 16 counts mostly over human trafficking, including more than a dozen state officials of all levels.
“We will not let influential people rise above justice,” Wanchai Roujanavong told reporters at a press conference in Bangkok.
The charges include human trafficking, involvement in international crimes, taking and bringing illegal migrants and malfeasance.
“The OAG has given priority to the issue – as it is a big group of people involving international systems. It has caused a lot of damage to the country as dead bodies were found,” Wanchai said, referencing the grisly discovery of dozens of migrant graves in abandoned traffickers’ camps along the border with Malaysia that sparked the trafficking crackdown.
- Dozens of suspects at large -
A court in southern Songkhla province, where the graves were found, will formally process the indictments later Friday.
Among the suspects is Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan, charged with being a major smuggling kingpin in the lucrative trade.
His alleged involvement raises awkward questions for junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has repeatedly justified his coup last year as a much-needed antidote to graft that he says flourished under a series of elected civilian governments.
Manas was promoted while Prayut was army chief.
He remains the only military officer charged with complicity in people smuggling, an issue that has raised eyebrows among rights groups who say it is unlikely such an influential officer would have acted alone.
None of the suspects will be bailed, Wanchai added, while a further 47 suspects – mostly Thais but also including Bangladeshi and Myanmar nationals – are still on the run.
Around 4,500 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were stranded in Southeast Asian waters in recent months, ping-ponged between countries reluctant to accept them until finally landing ashore on Malaysian, Indonesian, Bangladeshi, Myanmar and Thai soil.
In recent years tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s western Rakhine state where they are loathed by the Buddhist majority.
Many Rohingya live in bleak camps with restrictions over employment and travel.
They have increasingly been joined on the perilous crossing in the Andaman Sea by economic migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh seeking better opportunities in Malaysia.
Thai police say they have now successfully dismantled the trafficking network through the kingdom.
But rights groups are waiting for the end of the monsoon season in a few months to see if boats again set sail south from Myanmar and Bangladesh or if new trafficking routes emerge.
On Monday the US will publish its latest Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. Being designated to the bottom of the rankings can trigger sanctions, but this measure has not yet been imposed against Thailand.
The reporting period for TIP normally ends in March, before the Southeast Asia migrant crisis unfurled.
It is unclear if the US will reference the episode in the study, which comes as Thailand’s ruling junta faces mounting international opprobrium over the kingdom’s role in human trafficking.