In July 2017, Thailand’s criminal courts convicted sixty-two people, including high ranking military officials and local administrative staff, for organizing a human-trafficking ring. The case began when a mass grave of victims, believed to be Rohingya and Bangladeshi people, was discovered in Southern Thailand. With strong pressure from international partners, the junta, who seized power in 2014 through a military coup, prosecuted over a hundred people associated with the human trafficking operation. Amongst the convicted was a high ranking military official, Lieutenant-General Manas Kongpan; prior to his arrest, he was Deputy of the International Security Operations Command, which intercepted illegal boats. Others prosecuted included a prominent businessman and politician, Pajjuban Aungkachotephan. While the public trials suggest an enforcement of human trafficking crimes, the court proceedings also raise concerns regarding fair trial standards.
Human trafficking in Thailand has a complex history, but recent trends reflect efforts by the Thai government to improve protection and enforcement. In 2014, the U.S. State Department considered Thailand as having the lowest ranking in its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. In recent years, Thailand’s ranking improved due to efforts to increase enforcement and protection from human trafficking. Among these efforts include developing a new Criminal Court Division for Human Trafficking, drafting a new criminal code, and increasing penalties for trafficking. Successive military coups in 2006 and 2014 have also impacted the enforcement and protection of trafficking activities.
Thailand is party to numerous international and regional anti-trafficking conventions including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects civil and political freedoms. Foremost, Article 8 prohibits slavery. Additionally, concerns regarding violations to the Right to Liberty in Article 9 are represented in the use of immigration detention centers (IDC) and government-run shelters for survivors of trafficking activities. The NGO, Fortify Rights reported cases of prolonged detention, disappearances, and deaths of detainees. The U.S. State Department noted that arrests and “soft deportation” of immigrant violators exacerbates the vulnerability and victimization of survivors of trafficking.
Furthermore, Thailand is party to the Convention Against Torture, under which Article 13 protects complainants and witnesses against “ill-treatment or intimidation.” In 2016, the aforementioned Thai government took measures to automatically ensure witness protection; however, the trial also showed numerous threats against witnesses, interpreters, and police investigators. In the human trafficking case, Fortify Rights reported not only instances of witnesses facing threats, but also cases of abductions by police officers in early 2016. Shortly after the trial began, the chief investigator, Major General Paween Ponsiring, fled Thailand, seeking asylum in Australia due to death threats. Ponsiring also said that he was instructed to resign or remain silent.
While the 2017 case is considered a “unprecedented effort by Thai authorities” against human trafficking, Fortify Rights suggests that further investigation should take place regarding prior mass human trafficking cases from 2012-2015. Furthermore, additional resources should be invested in order to ensure fair trail standards in concert with regional anti-trafficking conventions.