By THE NATION
THE CRIMINAL COURT yesterday convicted human traffickers implicated in a massive network, including senior military officer Manas Kongpan and leading local politicians in the South, for their roles in the trade of modern-day slaves in a case that ignited attention on the regional migrant crisis two years ago.
The court spent all of yesterday reading a 500-page verdict on 102 defendants involved in trafficking migrants, most of whom were ethnic Rohingya people from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The involvement of security officers, notably Lt-General Manas, an Army special adviser, apparently angered Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as reporters asked if their roles in the crimes had damaged the military’s reputation.
“Do not forget that we have 400,000 to 500,000 troops. Manas is just one person. Can he alone ruin the whole Army?” Prayut responded furiously. However, he said he had no idea how the court’s verdict would affect Thailand’s reputation regarding human trafficking.
Manas and several other security officials and politicians from local administrations in the southern Satun province, were arrested in 2015 following the discovery of a mass grave in a jungle shelter in the border district of Sadao, which traffickers had used to hide their victims.
Prayut, who led the Army to topple the elected civilian government in 2014, asked the public not to blame the entire military for the trafficking crimes while referencing the former Army general. “There are many people in this human trafficking network. Manas alone is just part of [the network],” Prayut said yesterday before the court issued its verdict.
An Army captain was also accused in the case but Manas was the highest ranking officer involved the trial. He climbed the career ladder when Prayut was Army commander between 2010 and 2014 and was promoted from major general to lieutenant general after the 2014 military coup.
The court found that Manas and Pol Colonel Charn U-thong and Pol Sub-Lieutenant Narathon Samphan were guilty of trafficking and organising a transborder crime syndicate.
The case involved 103 defendants but one of them died during the trial. As of press time yesterday, the court had read verdicts for 38 defendants with more than two dozen found guilty for roles in human trafficking and bringing illegal migrants into the Kingdom and sheltering them.
Ten defendants, including two police officers, were acquitted based on insufficient evidence.
The court summarised the accounts of witnesses regarding the behaviour of the defendants, specifying the responsibilities of suspects who ran the Rohingya detention camp in the Khao Kaew mountain in Sadao district, from where the Rohingya were smuggled to Malaysia.
The verdict also dwelled on witness accounts about defendants who were in charge of food and water supplies and who beat up trafficking victims.
The court said it had been told that not enough food and water was provided to the detained Rohingya, who faced death threats designed to prevent them from using their phones or fleeing the camp. The court also said it had been told that victims were beaten up when they asked for more food and water.
Another well-known defendant, Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, who is widely known as “Ko Tong”, is the former chief of Satun Provincial Administrative Organisation. Public prosecutors accused him of using private Andaman Sea islands, close to tourist spots such as Koh Lipe, to shift boatloads of migrants to the mainland, where they were packed into lorries and taken to camps straddling the Malaysian border.
The court found him guilty of human trafficking, organising a cross-border crime syndicate and bringing illegal migrants into the Kingdom.
Trafficking of Rohingya to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia roused international outrage years ago as so-called “boat people” from border areas of Bangladesh and Myanmar were subjected to inhumane treatment while being trafficked in countries across the region.
A major crackdown on human trafficking in 2014 resulted in Thailand being upgraded from the lowest class of Tier 3 in the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report 2014-2015.