A Thai army general was one of the dozens of people convicted in a major human trafficking trial that included 103 defendants accused of involvement in a modern-day slavery trade. Lt Gen Manas Kongpaen was convicted of several offenses on Wednesday involving trafficking and taking bribes in the case involving migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison. The General was heading the unit, who was responsible for keeping out and expelling migrants who entered Thailand illegally. Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, considered to be the kingpin of the illegal trade, was also found guilty. Pajjuban was a prominent businessman and a former politician in the southern province of Satun. He received 75 years in prison.
All the defendants were charged with human trafficking and had pleaded not guilty. They were arrested in 2015 after 36 bodies were discovered in shallow graves in southern Thailand, in what had served as holding camps for migrants until they could be smuggled over the border into Malaysia, or other neighbouring countries. Investigations by authorities revealed many other such camps, where more bodies were found, some on the Malaysian side of the frontier.
According to investigators, smugglers held Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution and poverty in Myanmar for ransom in the jungle camps until relatives could pay for their release. In some cases, they were sold to work as virtual slaves in Thailand. Bangladeshis were also among the migrants.
Most Rohingya were “boat people” who fled from Myanmar or neighboring Bangladesh on rickety vessels with no supplies,often to find themselves pushed back into the open sea by countries such as Thailand unwilling to welcome them. The case drew special attention when its lead police investigator, Maj Gen Paween Pongsirin, fled to Australia and said he feared for his life after his findings implicated”influential people” in Thailand who wanted to silence him.
“Today’s verdict is a major step in efforts to combat human trafficking in Thailand,” said Sunai Phasuk, a researcher for the group Human Rights Watch. “Now that we see the conviction of a senior army general,local politicians, influential tycoons, and … others complicit in trafficking of Rohingya, this should send a strong message that regardless of their status and affiliation, no one is above the law.” In a separate case in 2015, labor abuses in the Thai seafood industry gained in prominence around the globe after a two-year investigation by The Associated Press led to the freeing of more than 2,000 slaves and the arrest of more than a dozen alleged traffickers. Several have been convicted.