BANGKOK - A Thai court jailed sentenced an army general to 27 years jail on Wednesday (July 19) in a landmark human trafficking trial that focused regional attention on the lucrative underworld trade.
Manas Kongpan, a lieutenant general of 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, which also declared him guilty of transnational organised crime, noted evidence that millions of baht were transferred into his bank account.
The conviction was hailed by observers as a sign of the Kingdom’s commitment to tackling human trafficking.
“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.”
Under Thai law, those convicted of human trafficking can be jailed for life.
Apart from Manas, other influential figures in Thailand’s south found guilty on Wednesday were Banjong Pongphon, the former mayor of Padang Besar sub-district of the southern Songkhla province as well as Pajjuban Angchotephan, a businessman and former administrative body chief of Satun province.
Banjong was jailed 78 years, and Pajjuban 75 years.
The harshest sentence was meted out to Soe Naing, who received 94 years in prison. According to news agency Reuters, police said the Rohingya man, who also went by the name Anwar, was a key figure in a brutal trafficking network that ran a jungle camp where dozens died.
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 two years ago. According to survivors, criminal networks who smuggled migrants into the country detained and tortured them in camps like that to extract payment from their relatives. Investigations later implicated over 150 suspects, including policemen and officials.
The Thai crackdown disrupted long established smuggling routes funneling 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 under increasingly desperate conditions until the three countries came to an agreement on how to handle the crisis.
It also turned global attention on 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.
On Wednesday, reporters and over 100 relatives and supporters of the accused were not allowed into the courtroom and had to observe the proceedings that 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.
The court meanwhile allowed Manas as well as three of his witnesses to give their 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 human trafficking and set up a special court division to tackle such cases in 2015. In the next year, the country 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.