Thailand has faced no shortage of critics in recent years. From a military coup d’etat and a crackdown on dissent to its inability to curb thriving illegal industries from wildlife trafficking to narcotics, the list of grievances remains quite long. And among these, human trafficking in particular has angered civil society group and foreign governments alike.
But convictions registered against 62 of 103 defendants, including Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen who was sentenced to 27 years, for running a human trafficking network from Myanmar to Malaysia has at least proved the authorities there are capable rooting out and jailing such thugs when they actually want to.
The arrests followed the discovery of 36 bodies in shallow graves in mid-2015, which grabbed international headlines. The graves were linked to the exodus of an estimated 25,000 people, mainly from Myanmar, and the subsequent discovery of 139 graves at 28 hidden transit camps along Malaysia’s northern border with Thailand – just the latest of such grim stories. Another few thousands stranded at sea on rickety boats swam ashore.
Many of the victims were Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar. However, Thailand has yet to release its full findings, including the results of post-mortem forensic testing.
Thailand, and then ASEAN, had been sharply criticized for taking too long to react to the crisis, prompting rare, behind-the-scenes lobbying to resolve the issue.
In court, some of the convicted were found guilty of taking part in organized transnational crime, forced detention leading to death, and in some cases, rape.
Police officers, politicians, a host of local authorities and hoods were among the guilty
Unsurprisingly, Thai Prime Minister and head of the ruling junta Prayut Chan-o-cha said the conviction of Manas was not a fair reflection on the nation’s military.
“There are many people in this human trafficking network,” he said. “Don’t group all soldiers in the country as one.”
Manas was a senior officer of the Internal Security Operations Command in the south, and his charge sheet included trafficking and taking bribes in cases involving migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, a prominent businessman and former politician also known as Ko Tong or “Big Brother Tong,” was named as the mastermind behind the operation and sentenced to 75 years in prison.
One Myanmar national, who worked in the jungle camps, was sentenced to 94 years in jail, while another 17 were jailed for more than seven decades even though, under Thai law, the maximum sentence a prisoner can serve is 50 years.
The tribunal has not been an easy affair for the authorities. It’s been tainted by allegations of intimidation against witnesses, police investigators, and even interpreters.
Thailand’s practices continue to draw international scrutiny. The U.S. State Department recently left the country on its Tier Two Watchlist, just above the lowest ranking of Tier Three, in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, noting that it had failed to do enough to combat human trafficking.
Sunai Phasuk, a senior Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Reuters that some of the convicted could be eligible to receive the death penalty and the fact that senior officials like Manas were charged should help deter criminals in trafficking networks in the future.
However, some rights groups are also far from convinced that the authorities have done enough to end the scourge of human trafficking, particularly given Thailand’s history as a transit country for people trafficked from poorer, neighboring countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.
“This may be the end of an important and unprecedented trial, but it’s been a rocky road, and it’s not ‘case-closed’ for survivors of human trafficking here,” said Amy Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “Thailand has a long way to go to ensure justice for thousands who were exploited, tortured, and killed by human traffickers during the last several years.”
She also said Thailand can and should ensure the protection of investigators, witnesses, court employees, and most importantly, survivors of human trafficking.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt