Thailand to charge 88 over human trafficking

Eighty-eight human trafficking suspects will be brought before a Bangkok court today following a sweeping investigation into gangs that fuel the illegal trade.

The probe, which was triggered by the discovery of mass graves on the Thai-Malaysian border in May that later snowballed into a regional migration crisis, implicates several senior officials, including a three-star general in the Thai army.

All will be charged with human trafficking and transnational crime, said lead police investigator Paween Pongsiri. Three other individuals linked to the case will be charged at a later date.

But Major-General Paween caused a stir when he resigned during the weekend, saying that his recent transfer to the southern border provinces would expose him to violence from the network of traffickers that operates there.

"Those involved in human trafficking are powerful," he told The Straits Times over the phone from a location he wanted to keep secret. "I can't identify who they are… but many of them are still out there and doing business as usual."

His allegations have cast doubt over the ruling Thai junta's assertions that it has made significant progress against human trafficking. The kingdom, which was given the lowest possible rating in the latest US Trafficking in Persons report in July, has been trying to stave off possible sanctions that might come with the black mark.

Human smugglers as well as traffickers routinely use Thailand as a transit point because of its relatively porous borders and strategic location as a travel hub.

Just before the Thai crackdown in May, thousands of Muslim Rohingya fleeing dire conditions in Myanmar, as well as economic migrants from Bangladesh, made the boat journey south to Malaysia when maritime conditions were favourable at the end of each year.

But many fell into the hands of traffickers, who held them in remote jungle camps on the Thai-Malaysian border and tortured them until their relatives sent money for their onward passage to Malaysia. Those who subsequently died were buried in unmarked graves in the jungle.

The Thai government crackdown, however, sparked panic among traffickers who abandoned the migrants at sea. The Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian governments took turns repelling these boats from their shores until an agreement was reached in late May to allow them temporary stay in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Thai police subsequently issued more than 150 arrest warrants for individuals allegedly linked to the southern Thailand trafficking network, including five military officers. Among the most high-profile suspects were army Lieutenant- General Manas Kongpan and four police officers. Their trial will begin after evidence is examined by the court this week.

Police Maj-Gen Paween told The Straits Times that his 80-man investigation team, which has since been disbanded, is in low spirits because none of its members was promoted in the recent exercise. They had worked without break for five months and received threats to their safety.

"I can't do anything to protect myself and my men," he lamented.

When asked to respond, national police chief Chaktip Chaijinda said Mr Paween could have asked for protection instead of resigning. "This is a shame, Paween is someone with knowledge," he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Meanwhile, human rights activists monitoring the seaborne movement of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants say this "sailing season" has been quiet so far, though it is unclear if the drop in departures was a result of human smugglers trying to evade attention by changing their routes and tactics.

Ms Chris Lewa, who runs the Arakan Project, a research and advocacy group, said many are "going directly to Malaysia and skipping Thailand".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2015, with the headline 'Thailand to charge 88 over human trafficking'. Print Edition | Subscribe