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A 2015 photograph of Manus Kongpan arriving at the criminal court in Bangkok. Photo: AFP

Thai general Manus Kongpan, jailed for trafficking Rohingya refugees, dies in prison

  • Manus was given an 82-year sentence following Thailand’s largest-ever human smuggling investigation
  • The court case was sparked by the discovery in 2015 of the bodies of at least 30 refugees in mass graves
Manus Kongpan, the former Royal Thai Army lieutenant general who was jailed in 2017 for human trafficking and corruption after the discovery of Rohingya refugees in mass graves, has died in prison.
At least 30 bodies were found in 2015 at an abandoned human trafficking camp in Thailand’s Songkhla province, near the border with Malaysia. Some were in shallow graves, while others were left to die in the open. Investigations revealed they had died of starvation or disease as traffickers waited for a ransom.

The scale of the atrocity and the corresponding public scrutiny prompted the Thai authorities to open the country’s largest-ever investigation into a human smuggling ring. Within weeks, Manus – at the time a senior adviser to the Thai military – was named a suspect. His initial 27-year sentence was later increased to 82 years upon appeal.

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During his time in the army, Manus – who died of a heart attack on Wednesday – was attached to the Internal Security Operations Command, and was responsible for border control and the expulsion of illegal immigrants.

In 2009, the South China Morning Post published a front-page story and photographs revealing that Manus had overseen the secret detention of Rohingya migrants on the island of Koh Sai Daeng before abandoning them to their deaths on the high seas.
Thai army officers process Rohingya refugees on the island of Koh Sai Daeng in late 2008. Photo: Handout

The report revealed that 538 Rohingya were dead or missing after the Thai army cast adrift nearly 1,000 refugees aboard unpowered boats in December 2008. Survivors on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands told the authorities there of starvation, brutality and summary executions.

Manus at the time denied that the army was detaining Rohingya and refused to discuss the matter, according to the report. A video obtained by the Post shows the refugees crouching in the sand, visibly terrified as soldiers in fatigues and officials in civilian clothing interviewed and filmed them.

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Thailand’s investigation into Manus and the people-smuggling network was daunting and dangerous. In late 2015, Paween Pongsirin – the police officer in charge of looking into the mass graves in Songkhla – sought asylum in Australia, citing danger from enemies he made while investigating influential figures involved in trafficking the Rohingya.

Hajee Ismail from the Rohingya Peace Network, a Thailand-based charity, vividly remembers the years-long trials of Manus and the 102 other suspects.

“I was one of a few interpreters for the case at court,” the 47-year-old said. “I interpreted for Rohingya refugees who testified as witnesses in the case. They said Manus’ men captured them from the sea, sometimes a boatload of 300 to 500 people.

“They took the Rohingyas to the security camp before Manus contacted the human trafficking agents and sold them.”

Rohingya refugees on Koh Sai Daeng in 2008. Photo: Handout

According to Thailand’s Isra news agency, more than 14 million baht (US$450,000) was deposited into Manus’ bank account by other suspects in the case.

Ismail said as Thailand had in recent years stepped up sea patrols, Rohingya refugees now arrived overland, although in fewer numbers than before 2015.

“Before that, the south of Thailand was like a human trafficking market,” he said. “No arrests were made. Those who were supposed to make an arrest all took bribes.”

Siwawong Sooktawee, a researcher at the Migrant Working Group NGO in Thailand, said Manus was able to garner connections that allowed him to traffic Rohingya refugees as he used to serve in Thailand’s western Ranong province and the country’s south.

But the advocate says his death is far from an end to the exploitation and abuse faced by refugees in the country.

“Without the connections and the system, Manus could not have done all this,” Siwawong said. “Since his arrest, hardly a thing has changed in the power structure of local officials in the area.

“Certain security units are still authorised to work under confidentiality and immunity, which makes inspections and transparency hard. It is only a question of when another Manus will appear and reap [illicit gains] from this system.”