Sixty-two people were jailed by a Bangkok court this week in the largest human trafficking trial in Thai history. Ex-army general Manas Kongpan was sentenced to 27 years for trafficking and organised transnational crime.
And more needed to be done to ensure that traffickers were brought to justice and Rohingya migrants protected, human-rights groups argued.
Politicians Patchuban Angchotipan (“Ko-Tong”) and Bannakong Pongphol were sentenced to over 75 years each. In total 103 defendants stood trial with charges including human trafficking, murder, ransom and the unlawful use of firearms or other weapons. The longest sentence was 94 years for Soe Naing, widely known as Anwar, a Rohingya man who police claimed was a key figure behind the jungle death camp.
The investigation attracted increased attention when Major General Paween Pongsirin, who was leading the police probe, fled to Australia saying he feared for his life after his findings implicated “influential people” who wanted to silence him.
The trial began in 2015 after 36 bodies were found in shallow graves near the Malaysian border in a prison where traffickers were believed to have held migrants hostage until their relatives paid a ransom.
The dead were believed to be mostly Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar who were fleeing persecution to predominantly Muslim Malaysia.
While applauding the convictions, rights groups said more needed to be done to protect the estimated 5,000 Rohingya in Thailand and to investigate other camps where victims of beatings, disease and starvation are believed to be buried.
“The trial and convictions was just the first step,” said Sunai Phasuk, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to do more beyond this and continue investigations. It should leave no stone unturned.”
Those convicted included Burmese nationals.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha asked public not to regard the military as entirely comprised of criminals, saying there were “many people in this human trafficking network”.
The US State Department in June left Thailand on a “Tier-2 Watchlist”, just above the lowest rank of Tier 3, in its annual people trafficking report.
Washington said Thailand did not do enough to tackle human smuggling and trafficking, and did not convict government employees “complicit in trafficking crimes”.
This week’s convictions could allow Thailand to move out of Tier 2 status next year, activists said.
The Rohingya are often shipped away from Myanmar on heavily overcrowded vessels. Picture credit: YouTube