A cage made of barbed wire and bamboo sticks that Malaysian police said was used to hold migrants is seen at an abandoned human trafficking camp in the jungle close to the Thai border. This shot was taken on May 26, 2015, as Malaysian forensic police began the grim task of exhuming bodies of dozens of suspected victims of traffickers found buried around these camps. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj.

A Royal Thai Army general and a prominent local identity in the far South – both figures of some notoriety in Thailand – were among dozens of suspects found guilty of human trafficking today in one of the country’s biggest ever legal trials.

Lieutenant General Manas Kongpaen, a special adviser in the Army linked with the Internal Security Operations Command, was convicted of several offenses, including trafficking and taking bribes.

Patchuban Angchotiban, a wealthy businessman and former provincial president in Satun, was also found guilty. ‘Ko Tong’, as he was known, was said to be another ringleader involved in the trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshis who journeyed on boats to southern Thailand in a bid to find work in Malaysia.

These two men were among 103 arrested amid a blaze of publicity then put on trial in Bangkok two years ago following the discovery of multiple mass graves near the Thai-Malaysian border. The remains of 36 bodies were found in makeshift camps hidden in jungle on the border. The camps were places where traffickers held migrants as hostages until relatives back in Rakhine state in western Myanmar or Bangladesh were able to pay for their release.

More than 100,000 Rohingya are estimated to have got on boats to flee poverty and severe discrimination in Myanmar in the four years prior to the Thai government crackdown in 2015, when people smuggling down the Andaman Sea had expanded so much it was almost out of control.

Things ramped up dramatically after June 2012, when tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya were evicted from their homes in Rakhine state and ended up in refugee camps. Smugglers began using converted cargo vessels and fishing vessels capable of carrying 600 to 800 people on a single journey. Soon thousands of Bangladeshis were also paying for a ride to southern Thailand – oblivious of the hazards that lay ahead of them.

Police inquiry ended in curious fashion

In mid-2015, repeated reports of illegal migrants being smuggled by officials, and boat-people en route to Malaysia being held captive or becoming victims of extortion, eventually forced the military government – mindful of possible trade sanctions if it continued to ignore these abuses – to clamp down. It ordered a police inquiry that some sarcastically said was a bit too successful; after key figures such as Manas and “Ko Tong” were arrested, the investigation suddenly ended in contentious fashion, with the police officer in charge fleeing to Australia, seeking asylum and claiming later that he was pressured to curtail the probe. The government denied any wrongdoing.

Things were far more dire for the victims. Rights activists say that when people who agree to be smuggled into another country lose control of their circumstances they become victims of human trafficking.

For the victims whose families were unable to pay these ransoms (generally only a few thousand dollars), the outlook was grim. Most were held in primitive conditions; some were raped. The Thai government has not released a full report on the graves with the results of post mortem and forensic tests, but most of those who died are believed to have succumbed to diseases such as beriberi because of lack of food.

Hundreds more were abandoned on boats left adrift at sea during a refugee crisis similar to what has occurred in North Africa and the Mediterranean in recent years.

The conviction of at least 38 people on Wednesday by a special division of the Thai Criminal Court may go some way to repairing the Kingdom’s tattered image in regard to human trafficking and treatment of illegal migrants.

Activists say trafficking syndicates are still operating. But many have welcomed the government taking firm action, particularly against influential figures such as Manas and ‘Ko Tong’, who were previously regarded as ‘untouchable’.

Some of those found guilty of trafficking were also convicted of taking part in organized transnational crime, plus forced detention leading to death, and of rape, Reuters said.

Don’t blame the military: PM

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha asked Thais not to put the blame for trafficking on military figures, a reference to the army general on trial. There are many people in this human trafficking network,” Gen. Prayut told reporters. “Don’t group all soldiers in the country as one.”

The trial has been marred by allegations of intimidation of witnesses, interpreters and police investigators.

“We believe that the crackdown is only a disruption of a trafficking network but that network is still very much well in place,” Amy Smith, an executive director of rights group Fortify Rights, told Reuters.

Of the 22 verdicts read out during the court’s morning session, one person was found not guilty.

Sunai Phasuk, senior Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the heaviest sentence for those convicted of trafficking could be the death sentence. “The fact that there are very senior officials charged with this crime will help deter criminals in trafficking networks in the future,” Sunai, who observed the court proceedings, told Reuters.

The government denies that trafficking syndicates are still flourishing and has said it has largely eliminated human trafficking in the country.

Journalists were not allowed in the packed courtroom on Wednesday but proceedings were relayed on television screens provided by the court.

Thailand has historically been a source, destination and transit country for men, women and children who are often smuggled and trafficked from poorer, neighboring countries Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to work in Thailand or further afield in Malaysia, usually as laborers and sex workers.

Last month the US State Department left Thailand on a Tier 2 Watchlist, just above the lowest ranking of Tier 3, in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report because it did not do enough to tackle human smuggling and trafficking.

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