Rise and fall of Thai­land’s top traf­ficker

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

An army ‘Big Shot’ whose in­flu­ence seeped across the south, Lieu­tenant-Gen­eral Manas Kong­pan sat at the apex of Thai­land’s grisly trade in hu­mans, rak­ing in an un­told for­tune to keep pry­ing eyes off the traf­fick­ing route. As the num­ber of des­per­ate Ro­hingya and Bangladeshis shut­tled through the traf­fick­ing op­er­a­tion shot up, so did Manas’ rank in the Thai mil­i­tary. But the sil­ver-haired gen­eral was con­demned to 27 years in prison on Wed­nes­day for prof­it­ing from the trade, an ex­traor­di­nar­ily rare con­vic­tion of a se­nior mem­ber of an army that dom­i­nates the king­dom.

The 61-year-old’s down­fall was has­tened in 2015 af­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tors un­cov­ered se­cret jun­gle pris­ons in the south where traf­fick­ers starved and tor­tured mi­grants while hold­ing them for ran­som. The dis­cov­ery ex­posed Thai­land’s hor­ri­fy­ing role in a crim­i­nal op­er­a­tion that shifted vic­tims from Myan­mar to Malaysia, and forced the rul­ing junta to launch a be­lated crack­down.

Po­lice fol­lowed a money trail that lead straight to Manas, an army hard­liner with a pas­sion for bull­fight­ing. “He was in­volved in such an ob­vi­ous way... at a time when the junta was re­ally try­ing to show them­selves to be clean,” said Paul Cham­bers, an ex­pert on Thai­land’s mil­i­tary. “He is go­ing down be­cause he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Money trail

Manas was first high­lighted as a sus­pect in early 2015 af­ter 98 fam­ished Ro­hingya were found in trucks in Nakhon Si Tham­marat, stopped by a ran­dom po­lice check­point. Provin­cial po­lice - aided by anti-traf­fick­ing NGO Free­land - used the driv­ers’ cell phones to trace their reg­u­lar route. The trail carved through Thai­land’s south­ern neck from coastal Ranong, where boat­loads of mi­grants ar­rived from Myan­mar, to malaria-in­fested camps near the Malaysian bor­der, where they were held in ap­palling con­di­tions.

Phone and e-bank­ing records from the driv­ers led to key traf­ficker Su­nan Saength­ong, a Ranong politi­cian and busi­ness­man who had de­posited nearly $600,000 in ac­counts be­long­ing to Manas. In May 2015 po­lice found more bank slips re­veal­ing that Su­nan’s nephew had also trans­ferred huge sums to Manas, in­clud­ing some $400,000 in just over a month. Su­nan was jailed for 35 years in a separate trial but his nephew Nat­taphat Saength­ong and oth­ers re­main at large.

Around the time of the money trans­fers, Manas served as a top com­man­der of Thai­land’s south­ern se­cu­rity arm. His job was to en­force its con­tro­ver­sial “push-back” pol­icy which meant turn­ing around boats of state­less Ro­hingya who were try­ing to flee per­se­cu­tion in Myan­mar. But he used this po­si­tion to do just the op­po­site, ac­cord­ing to last week’s ver­dict, which ex­posed a ma­trix of col­lu­sion be­tween state of­fi­cials and busi­ness­men who prof­ited from traf­fick­ing.

Wit­nesses said Manas in­structed of­fi­cers to force back a boat of 265 Ro­hingya in 2012 - only to covertly re-route the ship to shore and truck the hu­man cargo south to the jun­gle pris­ons. Manas “had di­rect re­spon­si­b­lity in the push­back mis­sion and must have been part of this hu­man traf­fick­ing net­work, oth­er­wise the Ro­hingya would not have been able to re­turn to Thai­land so quickly,” the ver­dict read.

South­ern ‘Big Shot’

The traf­fick­ing op­er­a­tion flour­ished un­til the 2015 crack­down, with tens of thou­sands of vic­tims fun­nelled through a trade worth an es­ti­mated $250 mil­lion dol­lars. Many were lured from the Myan­mar-Bangladesh bor­der by bro­kers who promised jobs, while oth­ers were vi­o­lently kid­napped and forced onto the boats. The big money was made in Thai­land, where jun­gle camp war­dens phoned rel­a­tives of the weak­est mi­grants and threat­ened to kill them if they didn’t send more cash.

The young and strong were sold off as la­bor to Malaysian palm oil plan­ta­tions or fish­ing boats, ac­cord­ing to Free­land. All the while, Manas’ seem­ingly in­ex­orable rise up the army ranks con­tin­ued, with his com­mand stretch­ing over in­creas­ingly large chunks of the south. Months be­fore his ar­rest in 2015, he was pro­moted to Lt-Gen­eral and given the sweep­ing role of “mil­i­tary ad­vi­sor”.

It wasn’t the first time the hawk­ish of­fi­cer had hur­dled con­tro­versy. He was linked to a 2004 raid on a mosque that left more than 30 Mus­lim rebels dead in Thai­land’s far south, one of the early sparks of an in­sur­gency still burn­ing to­day. “He had a rep­u­ta­tion for of­ten go­ing be­yond the law,” said Cham­bers, adding that he was known as a “big shot” in the re­gion.

Manas was the only mil­i­tary man con­victed in last week’s traf­fick­ing trial, which saw more than 60 peo­ple sent to jail. Rights groups wel­comed the ver­dict but warned that many per­pe­tra­tors re­main at large. “We know not ev­ery­one has been ac­counted for in this trial,” said Amy Smith from For­tify Rights, which closely tracked the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “More needs to be done to ac­count for the hor­rific crimes that took place... and to en­sure this never hap­pens again.” —AFP

Gen­eral Manas Kong­pan

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