BANGKOK: A senior Thai army general was found guilty of human trafficking on Wednesday at a rare trial exposing the links between corrupt officialdom and the trade in people through the kingdom.
“The defendant worked with others to facilitate human trafficking,” a judge at Bangkok Criminal Court said while reading the verdict against army Lieutenant-General Manas Kongpan, adding he was also guilty of a role in a “transnational crime organisation” A Thai court found dozens of people guilty of human trafficking offences on Wednesday in a mass trial exploring links between corrupt officials, including a senior army general, and the grim but lucrative trade in Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants.
Thailand’s junta launched a crackdown in May 2015 on a network funnelling 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.
Rights groups long accused officials of ignoring — and even orchestrating — the trade in humans through Thailand’s southern provinces.
The area was the crucial link in a criminal trail that stretched from Myanmar to Malaysia.
The crackdown 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.
On Wednesday judges at Bangkok Criminal Court began delivering a stream of verdicts for the 102 defendants. One other accused died while on remand.
The offences include human trafficking, ransom and murder. All deny the charges.
Media were barred from the court itself, relying instead on an audio relay of the complex proceedings.
Soldiers and kingpins
Judges placed heavy reporting restrictions on much of the testimony, citing national security concerns. But the case has still lifted the lid on the power networks dominating southern Thailand.
Army Lieutenant-General Manas Kongpan, a top figure in the security apparatus covering the south, is the highest-ranking official on trial.
In 2013 he was promoted to head the Internal Security Command (ISOC) for the south. Current junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha was army chief at the time.
Another well-connected alleged kingpin 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.
An army captain, four ranking police officers, a nurse and several officials, including the mayor of Pedang Besar in Satun province, are also among the accused.
By the lunch break a drip feed of 38 defendants had been convicted for a range of offences including human trafficking and slavery.
Among them were guards at the jungle camps where migrants were held, including a Rohingya man who acted as an interpreter, and a string of local officials.