THE CRIMINAL COURT’S conviction of 62 defendants, including a senior Army officer and local administrative officials, in Thailand’s biggest human-trafficking case, was regarded by the international community as a momentous and significant step for the country to combat the illicit trade, although more needs to be done.
The convictions demonstrated Thailand’s willingness to hold to account government officials who committed these heinous crimes, said US Embassy spokesperson Steve Castonguay.
“We hope the case will catalyse further systemic changes by the Thai government to eliminate human trafficking,” he said.
The US State Department put Thailand on the Tier 2 Watch List of the 2017 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report because of inadequate efforts to solve the problem. The country was graded at the lowest Tier 3 in 2014 and 2015 when the case first surfaced.
A massive purge of human trafficking syndicates took place in 2015 following the discovery of a grave containing 36 bodies in a jungle shelter in the border district of Sadao, used by traffickers to hide and shelter mostly Rohingya victims from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The suspected traffickers likely had influential backing as Paween Pongsirin, a senior investigator in the case, was forced to seek asylum in Australia during the investigation in late 2015.
“One of the main issues in the TIP report … was the traffickers who were not brought to justice. This trial will show that we are on the right track to suppress human trafficking, which will benefit our TIP Report ranking next year,” said Human Rights Commissioner Angkana Neelapaijit.
However, she cautioned that there was still improper treatment of victims in human trafficking cases, as many Rohingya were detained in the Social Development and Human Security Ministry’s facilities and they cannot find jobs, go to school, or be sent to other countries. “Rohingya human-trafficking victims are different from the other victim groups, because they do not have a home country to send them back. Myanmar does not recognise them as citizens and they are considered stateless persons,” Angkana said.
Rohingya human-trafficking victims still did not take advantage of help from international agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and they were treated as offenders for illegally entering the Kingdom, not the victims of human trafficking, said Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Thailand.
“Large numbers of the Rohingya people are still detained on allegations of illegally entering the Kingdom. They are mistreated and cannot access proper help from international agencies,” he said.
The Thai government also needs to be serious about other human-trafficking groups, not only Rohingya; there are many kinds of human-trafficking activities such as sexual workers and in the fisheries industry, he said.
“I hope this trial will be the first step for more action in the other cases,” he added.
While the verdicts mark a step forward for Thailand’s efforts to combat human trafficking, Fortify Rights said the authorities should reopen the investigation into the trafficking of tens of thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis from 2012 to 2015.
This trial did not go far enough to address the many years of horrific abuses perpetrated by human traffickers in Thailand, said executive director of Fortify Rights, Amy Smith.
“However, the trial was not without flaws – we noted threats against investigators and witnesses and documented the protracted detention of survivors,” Smith said in an email reply to The Nation.
“Thai authorities shouldn’t sweep undiscovered mass graves under the rug of this trial,” she said. “We documented a massive operation that trafficked tens of thousands of Rohingya during a three-year period. The loss of life was significantly more than the focus of this trial.”
From at least 2012 to 2015, transnational criminal syndicates and complicit Thai authorities held captive, at any given time, several thousand Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi nationals in illicit “torture camps” in conditions of enslavement, depriving them of adequate food, water, and shelter, and beating and sometimes killing victims.
Alleged members of human-trafficking syndicates who preyed on Rohingya and others in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia have not been held to account, Fortify Rights said in a statement.