On Wednesday, a Thai court handed down guilty verdicts for over 60 human traffickers who conspired to transport and imprison untold numbers of migrants, many of whom ended up enslaved in the Thai fishing industry. Charges included money laundering, corruption, participating in organized crime, rape, torture and forcible detention leading to death. The ruling took 12 hours for the judge to read.
Ringleader Soe Naing (or "Anwar") was sentenced to 94 years. Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpan, the most prominent defendant, received 27 years. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of Thailand's ruling military junta, called on the nation not to "group all soldiers in the country as one" in the wake of Manas' conviction.
The court found that the 62 defendants ran a trafficking camp near Thailand's border with Malaysia, where they held hundreds of migrants in captivity. In 2015, police investigators raided the camp and found dozens of shallow graves containing human remains. The ensuing investigation was wide-ranging and thorough, and police officials, witnesses and even court interpreters told media that they received threats related to their involvement.
Many Burmese, Cambodian and Indonesian migrants end up in the Thai fishing industry under debt bondage, forced to work to pay off the "costs" of their cross-border journey. In many cases, the working conditions approximate slavery. According to the U.S. State Department's latest report, "some remain at sea for several years, are paid very little or irregularly, work as much as 18 to 20 hours per day for seven days a week, or are reportedly threatened, physically beaten, drugged to work longer, and even killed for becoming ill, attempting to escape, or disobeying orders."
Rights groups say that trafficking operations were not significantly disrupted due to the arrests and convictions, but Human Rights Watch representative Sunai Phasuk told Reuters that the guilty verdict for Manas may help to deter other officials from involvement in trafficking. For now, though, Thailand is listed on the latest U.S. Trafficking in Persons report at the relatively poor Tier 2 Watch List range, up from the lowest Tier 3 level in 2014-2015. The U.S. State Department alleges that Thai officials remain complicit in the nation's human trafficking industry.