Thailand Close to Ending Probe Into Human Trafficking Scandal

By Pimuk Rakkanam and Imran Vittachi

2015-06-18
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150618-TH-trafficking-620 Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr, Thailand’s deputy defense minister and army commander-in-chief, talks to reporters in Bangkok about a lieutenant general’s arrest on human trafficking charges, June 11, 2015.
Photo: BenarNews

Updated at 11:19 a.m. ET on 2015-06-19

Thailand is winding down an investigation into human trafficking rings that operate out of its southern provinces, around the time the U.S. State Department is expected to release its annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP).

This year's TIP is due out any day now, reports say. Last year, Thailand was dropped to Tier 3, TIP's poorest rating for a country's performance in meeting human rights standards.

Thai officials are hoping the American government will bump up Thailand's rating this year, given its crackdown on trafficking since May. However, the TIP report usually covers the period that starts on April 1 of the preceding year and ends on March 31 of the following year.

In recent days, Thai officials have affirmed the government's seriousness in cracking down on people smuggling.

“The government is showing clear intentions to seriously and efficiently combat and tackle the human trafficking issue,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha declared on June 6 in a ceremony marking the country’s inaugural National Anti-Human Trafficking Day.

“The human trafficking issue is not one that we can solve in a short time span,” The Rakyat Post quoted the retired army general as saying. “It is a complex issue that has accumulated over a long period of time.”

Efforts to tackle criminal trafficking enterprises cannot be limited to Thailand, Surapong Kongchantuk, chairman of the Lawyers Council of Thailand’s human rights subcommittee on ethnic minorities, told BenarNews.

“We need to expand the investigation abroad to see who used ships to load them [migrants], [and] the connection to Burma, Bangladesh and Malaysia, which relayed these trafficked people to the destination,” Surapong said, using another name for Myanmar.

“It is transnational crime and the investigation must cover all in these countries.”

More military arrests possible

Within Thailand, 89 arrest warrants have been issued in a human-trafficking case that stems from last month’s discovery of the bodies of 32 illegal migrants in the jungle in Songkhla province’s Padang Besar sub-district, which lies along the Thai border with Malaysia.

A Thai three-star general tops the list of 56 people already in custody, while 33 are at-large.

Now, three other army officers, including two colonels, could soon join Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen – the lone military officer implicated in the case to date – in custody, according to a police investigator.

“There is a report about more high-ranking officials being wanted. They are two colonels and one captain,” Police Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin told reporters in Hat Yai, Songkhla province, earlier this week.

“Additional arrest warrants will be issued according to their guilt and no one will be spared.”

He added that police hoped to wrap up their investigation by June 24 at the latest.

Manas, who denies all 13 trafficking-related charges against him, is considered a kingpin in the case.

The army has suspended Manas, pending the outcome of the criminal case against him, Thai Army Commander-in-Chief and Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr told reporters in Bangkok last week.

“It doesn’t matter that he is a senior military officer,” Udomdej added. “He must go through proper judicial procedures.”

Resort owner implicated

Another alleged ring leader in custody is Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, the former chief executive in Satun. The coastal province, along with Songkhla, serves as a major transit point for trafficking Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshi migrants into Malaysia.

Until the recent crackdown by Thai authorities, boatloads of these undocumented foreigners reportedly would land at points along the Thailand’s western coast, and then travel overland to Songkhla, where they would try to cross over into Malaysia.

The authorities accuse Pajjuban, a wealthy man who owns resorts on the island of Lipe, of masterminding a people-smuggling gang that operated out of Satun. His wife, Tasanee Suwanarat, is another one of the 56 people who have been arrested.

Since the start of the crackdown, Thai police have confiscated more than 200 million baht (U.S. $5.9 million) worth of assets from suspected traffickers, according to Khaosod, a Thai daily newspaper, which cited Pol.Gen. Aek Angsananont, deputy commander of the Thai Police.

Three Mercedes-Benz's and seven fishing boats registered to Pajjuban have gone missing since his arrest, the Khaosod report said.

“We received good cooperation by all parties, including the military, civilian agencies, the department of special investigation and the anti-money laundering office. And we believe we have established strong evidence to punish all suspects,” Police Maj. Gen. Paween said.

Rohingya crime boss

Meanwhile, a Rohingya man named as “Yassin” is wanted by Malaysian authorities and is believed to operate on both sides of the border, according to media reports from Malaysia.

Traffickers circulate among the general population of detained Rohingyas, which has the effect of intimidating potential witnesses in trafficking cases, said Chalida Tajaroensuk, director of the People’s Empowerment Foundation, a Thai NGO.

“According to some Rohingya aid workers, there are some Rohingya traffickers mingled among the Rohingya victims now under the care of a home in Songkhla for children and women, which makes them unable to tell the real account of what was going on to the investigating authorities,” Chalida said.

“There are many wrong-doers [who] remain unaccounted for.”

On Wednesday, Thai police announced that they had placed 236 people who could testify as witnesses into protective custody, after these people received death threats from alleged trafficking-ring operatives, the Anadolu news agency reported.

Rights watchdog: A long way to go

Commenting on Lt. Gen. Manas’ arrest, Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asia division for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said it marked “an important step towards accountability for the trafficking of the Rohingya in Thailand.”

“But it is hardly sufficient to justify the expansive claims of ‘progress’ on anti-trafficking that some in the Thai government have been making to the U.S. and the international community,” Robertson told BenarNews.

“Lt. Gen. Manas is widely believed to have been at the center of the networks trafficking the Rohingya, but there are likely persons above and below him who still have not been rounded up,” he added.

“No one should forget that the areas where those 'ransom for release' camps were operating on the border were in high security zones controlled by the military and police, and so could not have existed without the connivance of at least some persons in those units.”

Nasueroh and Uayporn Satitpanyapan contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this report incorrectly identified Chalida Tajaroensuk as president of the People’s Empowerment Foundation, and misspelled Tasanee Suwanarat's name.

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