Dozens have been convicted of human trafficking in a landmark Thai trial that has implicated hundreds of high-level traffickers at a court in Bangkok.

  • A Thai army general and local politicians among the dozens found guilty at a Bangkok court on Wednesday.
  • Persecuted Burmese minorities faced with greedy and cruel traffickers, brokers and middle men who extort impoverished migrants in exchange for passage through south east Asia.
  • 60+ guilty verdicts from 103 defendants with more judgments expected later in the day.
  • Examining the persecution and perilous journeys of state-less Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

Human Trafficking in Thailand

The shocking extent of smuggling exploited people for profit has been revealed in the culmination of a landmark trial in Bangkok that has sent shockwaves throughout the Asian country and her neighbors.

In its biggest human trafficking trial, with more than 100 defendants accused of smuggling and trafficking refugees and migrants on the Thailand-Malaysia border, the scale and scope of the investigation has implicated a Thai army general, Myanmar nationals, Thai police officers and local politicians in a rare example of junta-led Thailand investigating its own armed forces.

With the verdicts described as “extremely rare” in a country controlled by military junta National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), among those convicted are main defendant and former army general Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpan, was sentenced to 27 years for trafficking and organized transnational crime.

Also included in the list of convicted criminals are former local politicians Patchuban Angchotipanand Bannakong Pongphol, who were sentenced to 75 years and 78 years, respectively. Overall, 62 out of 103 defendants were convicted for charges like human trafficking, murder, holding people for ransom, and the unlawful use of firearms or other weapons.

In the wake of the verdict, Thailand’s prime minister and chief of the NCPO, Prayuth Chan-ocha, asked citizens not to brand the entire military as criminals, arguing that “there are many people in this human trafficking network.”

As a result of a crackdown launched in May on the multi-million-dollar network smuggling migrants through southern Thailand to Malaysia, Thailand hopes to address some of the international criticism over human trafficking with the rights group Fortify Rights describing the operation as an “unprecedented effort by Thai authorities to hold perpetrators of human trafficking accountable.”

Bangkok Criminal Court began proceedings on Wednesday morning, with a protracted and heavily sensitive hearing expected for the verdicts of 102 defendants and proceedings taking place under media blackout with reporters relying on audio transcriptions for information.

However the case has still shined a light on the power networks dominating the illegal trade of people in southern Thailand and provided a wake-up call to many Thais and international observers.

“The conviction of a senior Army officer was an extremely rare event in junta-ruled Thailand,” according to Thai newspaper The Nation.

Smuggled from Myanmar to Malaysia

The trial shed light on a humanitarian crisis enveloping Southeast Asia as reports of gang leaders abandoning hungry and desperate human cargo in squalid jungle camps emerged, with many placed in overcrowded boats “ping ponged” between Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia waters.
Rights groups have a long history of accusing officials of turning a blind eye to the trade in humans through Thailand or even organizing the trafficking routes.
Exposing a criminal network that stretched from Myanmar to Malaysia involving a patchwork of military, police, political and mafia  agents the true extent of Thailand’s people smuggling operation were revealed.
“The trial began two years ago after the grisly discovery of dozens of shallow graves along the border — in what investigators say were jungle camps where traffickers held migrants hostage until their relatives paid to free them,” reporter Michael Sullivan told NPR’s Newscast unit. “Many of the dead were ethnic Rohingya, a long persecuted Muslim minority in neighboring Myanmar.”

No “Closed Case” for Survivors

Fortify Rights’ executive director Amy Smith stated that “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. 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.”

“The court related testimony that not enough food and water was provided to the detained Rohingya, who faced death threats designed to prevent them from using their phones or fleeing the camp,” Thai newspaper The Nation revealed. “The court also said it had been told that victims were beaten up when they asked for more food and water.”

Many of the bodies found in mass graves were Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted and “state-less” minority from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, who have few options in their home country.

The Plight of the Rohingya Muslims

The official stance of the Myanmar government has long been that the 1 million strong Rohingya population are mainly illegal immigrants.

A law passed in Myanmar in 1982 effectively rendered the Rohingya people stateless, and since then they have since been subjected to extreme humans rights abuses which have necessitated migration to more tolerant countries. The controversial law excludes them from citizenship which means they cannot vote or hold office in Myanmar.

Since unrest and fighting erupted in Rakhine State in 2012, many Rohingya communities have been attacked and burned to the ground and Rohingya people in Sittwe have been forcibly moved to nearby internally displaced person (IDP) camps. Those who remain in their villages are vulnerable to violent attacks by militant Buddhists and Myanmar’s armed forces, also known as the Tatmadaw, with video of the abuse surfacing on social media.

The Myanmar government has long denied the existence of the Rohingya, instead labeling them ‘Bengali’ due to their Bangladeshi origins. The ban on acknowledgment continues under self-proclaimed reformer and former political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Rohingya have been described as the world’s most persecuted people, living with families of up to 10 people and obliged to live in leaky, one-room bamboo huts. Myanmar has denied that atrocities and human rights abuses are taking place, but has prevented outside scrutiny by sealing off the conflict zone in northern Rakhine State, further blocking aid deliveries to the stricken communities.

For these state-less refugees the route to a better life has led them to be exploited by those with the power to help.

Hopefully these landmark verdicts can go some way towards helping achieve a better future for the world’s most persecuted people.

Read more: Are Muslim’s Facing Genocide in Myanmar?

Photo Credit: Flickr