Asia-Middle East Relations

Hundreds died in Rohingya camps on Thai-Malaysia border

More details have emerged about Thailand’s ugly trade in people now that a marathon trial has ended in Bangkok with 62 people convicted of human trafficking and other serious crimes.

Camps set up by traffickers in the jungle on the Thai-Malaysian border to hold Rohingya and other ‘boat people’ existed for many years prior to government crackdown in mid-2015 that curtailed the brutal trade, a key activist group has said.

Freeland, a Bangkok-based non-government group that fights wildlife trafficking and human slavery, worked with Thai police to identify key figures in the smuggling networks that were rounded up and put on trial.

The group said on Friday it “believes that more than 500 people died in the camps where the people in this particular trafficking chain were held, and that the camps were probably there for at least five years or more.”

It also had “digital forensics experts” able to help police access vital data on mobile phones found on drivers and in cars stopped with smuggled Rohingya on board. Data on the phones indicated “the precise route the drivers had taken on multiple occasions… [and] filled in pieces of the trafficking supply chain, and ultimately uncovered the location of some holding camps.”

The data also allegedly led to bank transfers to a senior military officer convicted of trafficking, Lieutenant General Manas Kongpaen. Manas, who was sentenced to 27 years jail, was involved in the notorious ‘pushbacks’ affair in December 2008 and January 2009, when vessels carrying hundreds of Rohingya were towed back into the Andaman Sea and set adrift.

A transcript of the court verdict says that Manas admitted using funds from the International Organization of Migration (IOM) to help pay for the ‘pushbacks’, which sparked a global furore, as hundreds were believed to have died at sea.

IOM investigating claim its funds were misused

IOM officials were shocked when notified about this on Friday – and scrambled to go through its accounts to determine if money was diverted from projects in southern Thailand.

“IOM was not aware of this testimony until Asia Times brought it to our attention,” a spokesman said late on Friday. “We are now investigating whether Lt-Gen Manas Kongpaen could have diverted any money from IOM humanitarian projects and used it to fund a criminal operation to tow boats out to sea. If it transpires that this was in fact the case, we regard it as reprehensible. IOM has a policy of zero tolerance on corruption and if we discover that any of our staff were involved, we will take appropriate action.”

IOM had a $1 million migrant health project over five years (2005-09) split between Ranong and Samut Sakhon provinces, the spokesman said. The project “provided basic healthcare, psycho-social help and some non-food aid (probably hygiene kits and clothing) to 200 or so Rohingya migrants who were detained in the Ranong Immigration Detention Centre.

“But there is no record in the accounts of any payment made to any of the individuals named in the court proceedings. It seems to us very unlikely that a significant amount of money could have been embezzled from either of these fairly small projects eight years ago. But we’ll do our best to ascertain whether there could be any foundation to Lt-Gen Manas Kongpaen’s claims.”

Meanwhile, Australian journalist Alan Morison – an expert on people smuggling on the Andaman coast, which he documented extensively on his website Phuketwan.com before a major legal fight caused him to stop reporting – gave further insights.

Australian Alan Morison (L), editor of the Phuketwan website, and Thai reporter Chutima Sidasathien (R) show their documents after hearing charges against them of criminal defamation and violating the Computer Crime Act, at a court in Phuket island, southern Thailand, 17 April 2014. A Thai Court indicted the Australian and Thai journalist for defaming the Thai Navy by re-publishing in their island website excerpts of an investigative article written by the Thomson Reuters news agency about trafficking in Rohingya Muslims in Thailand and Myanmar. Photo: EPA/Dan Miles