Rohingya Muslims flee subjugation in their native Myanmar. Source: Flickr
Prosecutors in Thailand have called their first witnesses in a large human trafficking trial with 92 defendants, including an army general, who face charges of smuggling, kidnapping and of causing numerous deaths.
More than 30 bodies were uncovered last year in shallow graves in southern Thailand, exposing networks that trafficked Rohingya Muslims fleeing abuse in western Myanmar and held them for ransom in camps before allowing them to travel to Malaysia.
The lead police investigator, Major General Paween Pongsirin, fled to Australia claiming that he feared for his life after his probe implicated “influential” Thais who wanted to silence him. Paween said he planned to seek political asylum in Australia.
Several high-ranking army officers in the junta-ruled dictatorship were charged, including Lieutenant General Manas Kongpaen, a commander in southern Thailand, several police officers, a powerful provincial mayor and politicians. The 92 defendants have been charged with human trafficking among other charges. All plead not guilty.
Key charges include human trafficking involving international crimes, illegally holding others and concealing bodies. The trafficking charges carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of up to 1 million baht (US$28,500) if convicted.
The influential defendants were led into Bangkok’s Criminal Court in prison uniforms, shackled at their ankles.
Human rights groups have long accused Bangkok’s elite of profiting from trafficking but the allegations have always been denied.
The investigation was launched after 36 corpses, believed to be refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh, were found buried in abandoned forest camps near the Malaysian border last May.
The discovery of the graves led to Thailand enforcing a maritime blockade on smugglers’ boats trying to land on its coastline. The blockade started a humanitarian crisis as thousands of starving Rohingyas and Bangladeshis landed on the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia.
The court’s first witness was a Rohingya man who remained anonymous. He said he fled repression in Rakhine state after a broker approached him several times offering him construction work in Malaysia. He said the agent told him he would sail on a large boat with his own cabin and a television, air-conditioning and full board.
But he found 270 people crammed on a tiny vessel with passengers forbidden from moving around and under constant surveillance from guards with rifles. During the two weeks at sea he said he was given rice once a day. The Bangkok authorities claim many police officers in southern Thailand have been dismissed from their posts and are being questioned for their role in the trafficking network.
Meanwhile, a US-based rights group warned that the trial could be flawed.
Amy Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, said Paween’s decision to flee after the Thai authorities ordered a stop to the probe raised worrying questions about the case.
“Pongsirin is a key witness in this case, and the fact that he fled Thailand in advance of this trial, fearing for his life, is deeply concerning,” Smith said.
“We’ve talked to other witnesses who are also afraid, and for good reason. Witnesses in this case are testifying against members of the Thai army, navy, police, the internal security operation command and others,” she added.
Fortify Rights claimed Thailand “has failed to provide adequate protection to witnesses”.
“Of the hundreds of witnesses scheduled to testify, we are aware of only 12 that are receiving formal protection under the Ministry of Justice. If Thailand is genuine about seeing justice served in this case, protection of witnesses needs to be a top priority,” Smith added.