The largest human-trafficking trial in Thai history opened Tuesday with testimony from a Rohingya man who told a harrowing tale of deception and suffering at the hands of people-smugglers.
Former Thai army Lt. Gen. Manas Kongoaen and 89 other defendants went on trial in Bangkok on charges of being involved in a transnational human-trafficking ring stretching from Myanmar to Malaysia via Thailand.
“Both hands were tied with rope and we were forced to board the vessel, walk down to the second deck and sit on a cramped floor,” Roshiduila, the Rohingya witness and a trafficking victim, testified in describing the start of his five-day sea journey from Myanmar to Ranong-a port on Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast-early last year.
The trial of the defendants who include Manas and other army officers, policemen and government officials from several provinces in southern Thailand, is expected to last till mid-December.
Key charges against the defendants include human trafficking involving international crimes, illegally holding others and concealing bodies. The human trafficking charges carry a sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of up to 1 million baht (U.S. $28,469), if convicted.
Manas and the scores of co-defendants were chained at the ankles as they sat together on benches in the courtroom during the first day of their trial.
Manas and the others were arrested last year as part of a Thai crackdown on illegal immigration. The crackdown was triggered in May 2015, when the bodies of 32 suspected undocumented migrants were discovered at traffickers’ camps abandoned in the jungle in Songkhla province, near Thailand’s border with Malaysia.
Southern Thailand has long been a transit point for Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshi migrants trying to enter Malaysia illegally by sea and land.
The discovery of the graves also led to Thailand imposing a maritime blockade on smugglers boats trying to land on its shores. The blockade precipitated a humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia as thousands of desperate Rohingyas and Bangladeshis came ashore in nearby Malaysia and Indonesia.
Roshiduila, a native of Hisuritha village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, was the first witness called to the stand and the only one who testified on Tuesday.
Through an interpreter he testified that a local constable, Hashimyuila, served as a major broker who lured Rohingya Muslims into the clutches of a human-trafficking ring.
According to Roshiduila, Hashimyuila promised people like him a better life in Malaysia, away from persecution in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
“Hashimyuila told me and three other friends there were jobs in the construction sector, and each would earn 1,500 ringgit (U.S. $361) a month,” Roshiduila said, adding that the broker promised a journey in an air-conditioned cruiser.
Roshiduila said that he and some other villagers believed that the constable would not cheat them, so they decided to take a chance. One night early last year, he and 20 people from the village embarked on a small boat from a nearby pier.
The boat sailed to a rally point in the Andaman Sea, where many other victims of trafficking were forced to board fishing boats, he testified.
Some of them tried to resist, but they were kicked and forced to board the vessel by 10 Burmese-speaking men who were armed.
Roshiduila, who understands some Burmese, said he heard guards mention that the number of passengers had reached 270. The ship set sail the next evening.
He said guards told them they needed to keep quiet, that they would receive one meal a day along with a small portion of water twice daily, and could use a restroom once a day.
At the end of his testimony, Roshiduila identified photos of seven Thai and foreign traffickers whom he encountered at trafficking camps in Ranong. He referred to them as “big bosses.”
Testimony is scheduled to resume on Wednesday and go on through Friday.
During their arraignment in November, 88 suspects pleaded not guilty to the charges, as did two more suspects on Tuesday. Two other suspects are in custody but have not been charged. Investigators said another 61 suspects remain at-large.
Back in November, a judge said that the court expected to hear from more than 400 witnesses as well as defendants.
Meanwhile, a U.S.-based human rights advocacy group warned that the trial could be flawed.
Amy Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, cited the fact that a key potential witness, former Thai Police Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin, the policeman who had headed the investigation into the transnational ring, fled to Australia in December, saying he feared for his safety after Thai authorities ordered a stop to the probe.
“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.
In addition, according to Fortify Rights, 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 said.
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