A Thai court sentenced an army general to 27 years in jail yesterday in a landmark human trafficking trial that focused regional attention on the lucrative underworld trade.
Manas Kongpan, a lieutenant-general in the Thai army, was convicted alongside other officials as well as dozens of Thai nationals, after a lengthy trial involving 103 suspects.
The senior military officer used to lead an operation to intercept migrants off the Thai coast. The court declared him guilty of transnational organised crime and noted evidence that millions of baht were transferred into his bank account.
The convictions were hailed by observers as a sign of the kingdom's commitment to tackling human trafficking. Under Thai law, those convicted of human trafficking can be jailed for life.
"This is one of the few cases where a high-ranking official has been convicted," Ms Puttanee Kangkun, a specialist at human rights group Fortify Rights, told The Straits Times. "But there is still a lot of work to do. Traffickers are still operating."
Apart from Manas, other influential figures in Thailand's south found guilty yesterday were Banjong Pongphon, the former mayor of Padang Besar sub-district of the southern Songkhla province, and Pajjuban Angchotephan, a businessman and former administrative body chief of Satun province.
Banjong was jailed for 78 years, and Pajjuban for 75 years.
A high-profile crackdown in 2015 lifted the veil on cross-border criminal networks long alleged to be oiled by official complicity.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o- cha, who has helmed the military government since a 2014 coup, stressed before Manas' conviction that many people were involved in the human trafficking network.
"Don't group all soldiers in the country as one," he told reporters.
The case stems from the discovery of mass graves of human trafficking victims in a remote jungle camp by the Thai-Malaysian border in 2015. According to survivors, criminal networks which smuggled migrants into the country detained and tortured them in such camps to extract payment from their relatives. Investigations later implicated more than 150 suspects, including policemen and officials.
The Thai crackdown disrupted long-established smuggling routes funnelling migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Malaysia via Thailand. Smugglers abandoned boatloads of migrants out at sea, who were turned away by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia till the three countries came to an agreement on how to handle the crisis.
It also turned global attention to Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority, who formed the bulk of these migrants because their movements and access to livelihoods are severely restricted back home. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are an estimated 420,000 Rohingya refugees in the region.
Yesterday, reporters and more than 100 relatives and supporters of the accused were not allowed into the courtroom and had to observe the proceedings as they were streamed on TV sets in other parts of Bangkok's Criminal Court .
Fortify Rights alleges that both witnesses as well as interpreters were intimidated during the trial, and that the authorities did not protect them enough. Lead police investigator Paween Pongsirin, citing concerns for his safety, sought asylum in Australia when the case was brought before the court in 2015.
Meanwhile, the court allowed Manas and three of his witnesses to give testimonies in closed hearings, ostensibly to preserve state secrets.
Thailand, which used to be classified by the United States as one of the worst offenders in human trafficking, stiffened penalties for these crimes and set up a special court division to tackle such cases in 2015. Last year, it was moved out from the bottom tier in the annual US Trafficking in Persons report.
Manas' lawyer Noppachai Veratanya told The Straits Times that his client will appeal against the conviction.