(New York, July 24, 2017) – A Thai criminal court’s sentencing of 62 people, including a military general, to long prison terms for their mistreatment of Rohingya migrants is a major step in combatting human trafficking in Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today. Thai authorities should build on this case by prosecuting human trafficking gangs and urgently providing protections for Rohingya migrants from Burma and Bangladesh.
On July 19, 2017, in Thailand’s largest-ever human trafficking trial, a criminal court in Bangkok convicted 62 of 102 defendants for serious crimes, including human trafficking, transnational organized crime, conspiracy, murder, attempted murder, beatings, coercion, holding people for ransom, and possession of weapons. The court imposed sentences ranging from 4 to 94 years in prison and fines of up to 265,550 baht (US$7,900). The remaining 40 defendants were acquitted.
“These sentences should send a clear message to human traffickers in Thailand that they face severe punishment, whatever their rank or status,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “For the Thai government, this should be the opening salvo of a campaign to end human trafficking and the abuse and exploitation of Rohingya migrants in Thailand.”
Among the officials convicted were: Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpan, former army advisor (27 years in prison); Bannajong Pongphol, former mayor of Narathiwat province’s Padang Besar district (78 years); Prasit Lemleh, former deputy mayor of Padang Besar district (78 years); and Pajuban Aungchotiphan, former administrative officer of Satun province (75 years).
The trial arose from the May 2015 discovery of mass graves containing 36 bodies at a jungle camp in Thailand’s southern Songkhla province. Police reported that the bodies were those of Rohingya migrants from Burma and Bangladesh who died from starvation or disease or were killed while human traffickers held them and extorted ransom from their family or friends.
The testimony of Lt. Gen. Manas during the trial demonstrated that the Thai government’s so-called “help on” policy toward boats carrying Rohingya migrants actually increased their risk of being trafficked. Under the policy, the Thai navy intercepted Rohingya boats near the Thai coast and provided them with fuel, food, water, and other supplies on the condition that the boats sailed on to Malaysia or Indonesia. Instead of protecting those in unseaworthy boats as required by international law, the “help on” policy made them more vulnerable to human trafficking gangs.
For years, human rights organizations and the media have reported on thriving human trafficking networks that operate with support and protection from corrupt officials in Thailand. In its 2017 Trafficking in Persons report, the US State Department put Thailand on the Tier 2 Watch List in part because “corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes continued to impede anti-trafficking efforts.”
Ethnic Rohingya who flee abuses, persecution, and hardship in Burma’s Rakhine State and from Bangladesh have received little protection from Thai authorities, Human Rights Watch said. As with previous Thai governments, the current administration of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha does not permit the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to conduct refugee status determination screening of Rohingya fleeing persecution in Burma.
Thai authorities summarily treat Rohingya found in Thailand without legal documents as illegal immigrants, even if they assert claims of persecution in Burma. Thai immigration officials detain Rohingya men in squalid detention facilities across the country. These detention cells are severely overcrowded with poor ventilation and inadequate food, and Rohingya held there lack access to medical care and other necessities. In some cases, detainees barely have room to sit, much less sleep. Several have died in custody. Victims of human trafficking should not be held in police or immigration detention cells, Human Rights Watch said.
Officials have sent Rohingya women and children to shelters operated by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. But their safety is not ensured even in government shelters, as traffickers have gained access to them and sought to entice them to flee the shelter with promise of transport to Malaysia.
Thai authorities should allow Rohingya to seek migrant worker status, which would permit them to work, Human Rights Watch said. Because the Burmese government discriminates against Rohingya, denying them Burmese nationality, Thailand should waive the nationality verification program requirement for Rohingya to receive migrant worker status.
“These court verdicts should jumpstart Thai government efforts to improve its treatment of Rohingya migrants,” Adams said. “Instead of sticking them in inhumane lockups, the government should let the UN refugee agency determine whether they are entitled to refugee protection and be allowed to temporarily stay in Thailand.”