A THAI non-governmental organisation combating human slavery said it relied on state-of-the-art technology to gather evidence that aided in the conviction of an army general in a human trafficking case described as the country’s biggest to date.
Following at least 62 guilty verdicts handed out by a Thai court, including the 27-year prison sentence of Lt. General Manas Kongpaen, the Thailand-based Freeland Foundation on Friday detailed its account of how it helped authorities obtain valuable information that led to charges against 103 suspected traffickers over the last three days.
In a statement, Freeland said on the morning on Jan 11, 2015, Thai police stopped five vehicles at a checkpoint on highway 408 in the Hua Sai district in the Southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat province. Found crammed in the trucks were 98 people, all showing signs that they were victims of trafficking.
Three drivers fled the scene, while another two were arrested.
At the request of police, the foundation provided digital forensics assistance by sending two investigation support officers and a technical analyst equipped with “cellebrite” tech kits that Freeland uses to extract and analyse data from mobile telephones.
With the five mobile phones found on the drivers and in the vehicles, Freeland officers were able to access the telephone history dating as far back as three months from each device.
“Through mapping the pinging of signals activated by these phones, Freeland was able to identify the precise route the drivers had taken on multiple occasions,” it said in the statement.
The data gathered helped piece together the puzzle of a human trafficking supply chain, and ultimately uncovered the location of some holding camps, where victims were held as prisoners.
Freeland said it found telephone and e-banking records, linking one driver to Sunan Saengthong – the municipal chairman of Rayong province.
Investigation of Sunan’s bank accounts then led directly a record showing Lt. General Manas receiving more than THB20 million (US$60,000) from Sunan with no legitimate explanation.
Freeland said together with Thai Police officers from across some of the Southern provinces, investigators collaborated on the case for four months — compiling and analysing the evidence, painstakingly piecing together the entire web — before the perpetrators were sentenced in court two years later.
Freeland believed 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.
The investigation found that the victims – mostly stateless ethnic Rohingya people from Burma – were put into three classes by their traffickers once they arrived at the camps in southern Thailand.
“Those in good enough physical condition, young, male and strong, were sold to be militants for the opposition party of Malaysia,” Freeland said.
“The older and weaker were sold as labour to either to Malaysian rubber or palm oil farms, or into the fishing industry. A wife and child could accompany them, as long as the buyer was prepared to pay more.”
It said the “third class” comprised the weakest, or those with other sources of money, including the ill, elderly, women and children.
“They were kept in the jungle camps and their only options were either for a relative in Thailand to pay a ‘ransom’ for their release or to stay in the camps until they died.”
Living on one packet of noodles a day and river water for drinking, most people were in the camp only between three and six months.
The trial began in 2015 after the discovery of more than 30 bodies in shallow graves near the Malaysian border in what authorities said was a jungle camp where traffickers held migrants hostage until relatives paid ransom for their release.
Thailand has long been a source, destination and transit country for men, women and children smuggled and trafficked from poorer, neighbouring countries, including Cambodia, Laos and Burma, to Thailand or further afield, often to work as labourers and sex workers.
While welcoming the outcome of the trial, rights groups said more needed to be done, both to protect the estimated 5,000 Rohingya in Thailand, and to investigate the smugglers’ camps where many more victims of beatings, disease and starvation are believed to be buried.
Last month, the US State Department left Thailand on a Tier 2 Watchlist, just above the lowest ranking of Tier 3, in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
The State Department said Thailand did not do enough to tackle human smuggling and trafficking, and did not convict officials “complicit in trafficking crimes”.
While welcoming the outcome of the trial, rights groups, including Freeland said more needed to be done, both to protect the estimated 5,000 Rohingya in Thailand, and to investigate the smugglers’ camps where many more victims of beatings, disease and starvation are believed to be buried.
“The result of this case starts to challenge the assertion of the recent TIP (Trafficking in Persons) report that Thailand has not done enough in prosecuting senior government officials,” said Steve Galster, Freeland director.
“However, the Thai Government must demonstrate that this is not just a one-off. In fact, it can become more business-as-usual enforcement.”
Additional reporting by Reuters