Thailand can do more on human trafficking
High-profile convictions of dozens of people, including an army general, a step in the right direction but the underlying problems remain
Thailand has taken a significant step towards eliminating human smuggling and trafficking with the sentencing of dozens of people to lengthy jail terms. An army general, provincial officials and police officers were among those convicted, proving the desire of authorities to stamp out a scourge that has taken untold numbers of lives, caused horrendous misery and damaged the nation’s image. But while the military government claims the syndicates have been decimated, rights groups believe they have only been disrupted. Given the revelations by witnesses, greater resolve and effort is needed for the networks to be wiped out.
Smugglers and traffickers have long used Thailand as a source, destination and transit point. High-level involvement was suspected and the South China Morning Post showed that eight years ago by proving military officer Manus Kongpan was involved in the secret detention and expulsion of Rohingya refugees. Manus, a lieutenant-general and the most senior official of the more than 100 arrested in a crackdown in 2015, was jailed for 27 years on Wednesday for organising a smuggling scam. The arrests followed the discovery of dozens of shallow graves on the Thai-Malaysia border.
The finding gained international attention that was heightened when smugglers abandoned boats laden with Rohingyas from Myanmar and Bangladeshi economic migrants at sea, leaving hundreds to perish. They had paid gangs to take them to either Thailand or Malaysia, where jobs had been promised. But as harrowing details given at the trials showed, the Thais and Myanmese behind the trafficking were making extra cash by kidnapping the men, women and children who landed, penning them under guard in the border jungles and then having them phone relatives for payment of ransom. Those who refused or were unable to come up with the cash were murdered and some of those able to pay were killed.
Thais as much as outsiders were outraged by the cruelty and the military government was rightly quick to respond. The trials were not trouble-free, though, with threats against witnesses, interpreters and police investigators and questions being raised about transparency after Manus and three witnesses gave their testimony in secret.
Sentences of up to 94 years in jail are a positive sign of progress. But justice for victims and stamping out impunity is only part of the solution. Thailand has still not signed the United Nation’s Refugee Convention, making Rohingyas and others fleeing persecution vulnerable to traffickers. Nor, with the construction, fisheries and sex industries only too willing to employ illegal workers, will there be a chance of smuggling and trafficking gangs being put out of business.