Lieutenant-General Manas Kongpaen (right) being escorted to the criminal court in Bangkok on Nov 10, 2015. Manas was singled out for the trial because he was responsible for keeping out and expelling migrants who entered Thailand illegally. REUTERS PIC

THAILAND, like Malaysia, is both a destination and transit country for human trafficking and people smuggling. Citizens of both countries were shocked when told of the gruesome discovery of 36 bodies in shallow mass graves at several locations near the Thai-Malaysian border in early May 2015.

These sites are believed to be “transit camps” where human traffickers held their victims (many were Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar) as hostages until their relatives were able to pay for their release and their journey across the border into Malaysia and countries beyond.

A definitive milestone in the war against human trafficking was reached last Wednesday when the Bangkok Criminal Court handed down a guilty verdict on 21 individuals out of 103 defendants accused of human trafficking, organised transnational crime, forcible detention of migrants leading to their deaths, and rape. The list of defendants includes senior Thai government officials, politicians and Myanmar nationals. The court took 13 hours to read out a 500-page verdict and sentences for the defendants. Forty of the defendants were acquitted.

A July 20 report by Bangkok Post of the trial stated that a three-star army official, Lieutenant-general Manas Kongpaen, was one of the prominent figures found guilty. He was found guilty of complicity in a “transnational organised crime” and collaborating with others “to facilitate human trafficking”, and was given a prison sentence of 27 years.

Another high-profile defendant, a former politician from Satun, Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, was also convicted of human trafficking and given a prison sentence of 75 years. He was widely regarded as the country’s kingpin in the modern human slave trade.

Arraignments in the case began in November 2015, but actual trial of the 103 defendants began in March 2016 and continued until February this year, involving over 200 witnesses (98 for the prosecution and 111 for the defendants). Lead police investigator Major-General Paween Pongsirin resigned a few days before the arraignments. He fled the country and sought asylum in Australia, claiming that some “influential people” in the government had plans to silence him.

Manas was singled out for this landmark trial because of his senior position in the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) in the country’s south. He was responsible for keeping out and expelling migrants who entered Thailand illegally. During the proceedings, the court was told that Manas received bank transfers of 14.8 million baht (RM1.9 million) from several human trafficking agents. His conviction was based on evidence that he had received kickbacks from Pajjuban (aka Ko Tong).

Apart from Manas and Pajjuban, another public figure convicted at the Bangkok trial was Banchong Pongphon (aka Ko Chong), the mayor of Padang Besar.

According to Fortify Rights, a non-profit human rights organisation based in Southeast Asia and registered in Switzerland and the United States, the Thai authorities arrested only 103 suspects out of 153 who were named in arrest warrants issued in connection with the case.

Thailand has long been criticised for not doing enough to combat human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Until the major crackdown in May 2015, thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar had been smuggled across the Thai-Malaysian border. In 2014, Thailand was placed on Tier 3, the lowest list in the US State Department Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report.

In May 2015, when the mass graves at the Thai-Malaysian border were discovered, then Thai police chief General Somyot Poompanmoung had openly admitted that some police officers were involved in human trafficking syndicates.

Commenting on the July 19 verdict, the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, said that the two-year long trial and the recent guilty verdict “will serve as a litmus test for Thailand’s military government”, which in the past had been tainted by controversies and corruption scandals.

Under Thai law, the offence of being involved in a crime syndicate carries a penalty of four to 15 years in jail and a maximum fine of 300,000 baht. A human trafficking offence carries a maximum penalty of 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to one million baht. The penalty is doubled if the convicted individual is a government official.

During the Bangkok trial, reporters were not allowed inside the courtroom, but they could follow the proceedings on closed-circuit television in adjacent rooms. While this has been criticised by some quarters, I do not find it unusual or objectionable because the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in Phnom Penh trying the Khmer Rouge war criminals adopts the same procedure. Although we (members of the public and journalists) were seated in a separate room (not the courtroom), we could follow the entire proceedings live via close-circuit television.

Last month, the US State Department listed Thailand on a Tier 2 Watch List in its TIP report, while Malaysia was “upgraded” to Tier Two. The Thai Foreign Ministry has called the TIP report unfair and does not do justice to Thailand’s efforts to stop human trafficking over the past year. I agree.

Salleh Buang formerly served the Attorney-General’s Chambers before he left for private practice, the corporate sector and academia. He can be reached via sallehbuang@hotmail.com

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