Court finds Thai gen­eral guilty of hu­man traf­fick­ing

Ver­dict is be­ing closely-watched in­side, out­side Thai­land

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

A Thai gen­eral was found guilty of hu­man traf­fick­ing yes­ter­day as a Bangkok court con­victed scores of peo­ple in a mass trial ex­pos­ing the lynch­pin role of cor­rupt of­fi­cials in the grim, lu­cra­tive trade in Ro­hingya and Bangladeshi mi­grants. Thai­land’s junta launched a crack­down in May 2015 on a net­work fun­nel­ing des­per­ate mi­grants through south­ern Thai­land and onto Malaysia, hold­ing some for ran­som in jungle camps.

It un­spooled a cri­sis across South­east Asia as gang­mas­ters aban­doned their hu­man cargo in the camps where hun­dreds died from star­va­tion and malaria, and at sea in over­crowded boats which were then “ping ponged” be­tween Thai, Malaysian and In­done­sian waters. Af­ter a day de­liv­er­ing ver­dicts for many of the 102 de­fen­dants, Bangkok Crim­i­nal Court found Lieu­tenant-Gen­eral Manas Kong­pan guilty of mul­ti­ple hu­man traf­fick­ing charges. A judge said he was also guilty of com­plic­ity in a “transna­tional or­ga­nized crime” net­work and “worked with others to fa­cil­i­tate hu­man traf­fick­ing.”

The rul­ing is an ex­tremely rare con­vic­tion for a se­nior army of­fi­cer in junta-ruled Thai­land. Manas, the high­est-rank­ing of­fi­cial on trial, was a top fig­ure in the se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus cov­er­ing Thai­land’s south-a key tran­sit zone in a traf­fick­ing trail that stretched from Myan­mar to Malaysia. The court heard he re­ceived bank trans­fers from traf­fick­ing agents worth 14.8 mil­lion baht. But the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion found he also used his po­si­tion to guide traf­fick­ing gangs around check­points af­ter their ar­rival on re­mote beaches as they headed to the jungle camps.

In 2013 he was pro­moted to head the In­ter­nal Se­cu­rity Com­mand (ISOC) for the en­tire south. Cur­rent junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha was army chief at the time. Be­fore the crack­down rights groups had long ac­cused of­fi­cials of ig­nor­ing and even con­duct­ing-the trade in hu­mans through Thai­land’s south­ern prov­inces. The trial has re­vealed a lat­tice of mil­i­tary, po­lice, lo­cal po­lit­i­cal and mafia fig­ures act­ing as traf­fick­ers, agents and lo­gis­tics men, all soak­ing up cash from some of Asia’s poor­est and most vul­ner­a­ble mi­grants. Over the years the smug­gling gangs are es­ti­mated to have net­ted tens of mil­lions of dol­lars.

Sol­diers and king­pins

Some re­port­ing re­stric­tions were placed by judges cit­ing na­tional se­cu­rity and Manas was al­lowed to give ev­i­dence be­hind closed doors. An­other well-con­nected king­pin con­victed yes­ter­day is Pa­jjuban Aungka­chotephan, bet­ter known as Ko Tong or ‘Big Brother Tong’. Po­lice 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 the fetid camps strad­dling the Malaysia bor­der. He was found guilty of hu­man traf­fick­ing and links to or­ga­nized crime.

By evening over 50 peo­ple, in­clud­ing two po­lice of­fi­cers had been con­victed of var­i­ous of­fences, rang­ing from guard­ing the squalid mi­grant camps to traf­fick­ing and neg­li­gence. At least ten were ac­quit­ted in­clud­ing an army cap­tain and a rank­ing po­lice of­fi­cer. Thai­land’s role as a key traf­fick­ing route spilled into full view af­ter of­fi­cials found dozens of shal­low graves in the hid­den camps dot­ting the steep, forested hills of the Thai-Malaysian bor­der in May 2015. They re­vealed the hor­rors en­dured by some of the mi­grants, who were starved and held in bam­boo pens by traf­fick­ers who de­manded over $1,000 for their re­lease.

Big busi­ness, big money

The ver­dict is be­ing closely-watched in­side and out­side Thai­land. The gov­ern­ment is des­per­ate to dis­pel the king­dom’s no­to­ri­ous rep­u­ta­tion for hu­man traf­fick­ing. Ear­lier yes­ter­day Junta chief Prayut an­grily de­nied the case re­flected sys­temic cor­rup­tion within the se­cu­rity ser­vices. “Manas alone will not make the en­tire mil­i­tary col­lapse,” he told re­porters. Crit­ics say the case was pre­ma­turely con­cluded and de­scribe a trial marred by wit­ness in­tim­i­da­tion, se­cret ev­i­dence hear­ings and re­stric­tions on me­dia re­port­ing.

“We ex­pect there are many more per­pe­tra­tors out there,” Amy Smith, from For­tify Rights, said. “This is a big busi­ness with big money.” The se­nior po­lice­man who ini­tially headed the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Ma­jor Gen­eral Paween Pongsirin, fled Thai­land un­der threats to his life.

Days be­fore he left he said the case had been pulled be­fore it could delve fur­ther into the com­plic­ity of of­fi­cials. State­less Ro­hingya Mus­lims have fled neigh­bor­ing Myan­mar in their tens of thou­sands since sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence flared in 2012.

They were joined by Bangladeshi eco­nomic mi­grants on rick­ety boats south­wards across the An­daman Sea, seek­ing work and sanc­tu­ary in Malaysia and Indonesia. Thou­sands are be­lieved to have died at sea, in a mi­grant flow that gar­nered few head­lines un­til the traf­fick­ing crack­down in 2015. — AFP

MYAN­MAR: This photo shows a Mus­lim woman sewing ma­chine at her room in Da Paing IDP camp near Sit­twe town in Rakhine state. — AFP

BANGKOK: In this se­nior ad­viser to the Royal Thai Army Lt. Gen. Manas Kong­paen ar­rives at the Crim­i­nal Court in Bangkok, Thai­land. — AP

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