BANGKOK • Thailand has said it would indict 72 people, including a senior army officer, over human trafficking after the plight of desperate Myanmar and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea triggered an international outcry over the grim trade.
The move yesterday comes days before the release of an annual United States report ranking nations on their anti-trafficking efforts which last year relegated Thailand to the bottom rung.
Bangkok launched in May the "biggest (investigation) into human trafficking" in Thailand's history, deputy national police chief Aek Angsananont said.
A spokesman for the Office of the Attorney-General (OAG) of Thailand said yesterday that it had issued an order to indict 72 people charged on 16 counts mostly over human trafficking, including more than a dozen state officials at all levels.
"We will not let influential people rise above justice," Mr 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... It has caused a lot of damage to the country as bodies were found," Mr Wanchai said, referring to the grisly discovery of dozens of migrant graves in abandoned traffickers' camps along the border with Malaysia that sparked the trafficking crackdown.
A court in southern Songkhla province, where the graves were found, was to formally process the indictments late yesterday.
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 Mr 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, Mr Wanchai added, while a further 47 suspects - mostly Thais but also including Bangladeshi and Myanmar nationals - are still on the run.
Thailand 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 into Malaysia - the desired destination of Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.
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.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS