Thailand police say they have concluded the largest investigation into human trafficking in the country’s history with the arrests of 56 suspects and warrants for more than 60 people.
Officials say the probe, centered in the country's south, involved filing over 100,000 documents to the Office of Attorney General, which will now decide by late July on pressing charges against the accused.
But rights groups such as the New York–based Human Rights Watch (HRW), which welcomed the investigation, are questioning the political will of law enforcement to fully complete investigations that may lead to charges against military officers.
Sunai Phasuk, HRW's Thailand researcher, says although arrests include influential local civilians and politicians, the arrest of a single military officer is raising concerns about transparency.
“There are kingpins including top businessmen in the Southern provinces," he said. "Those names have been implicated for almost a decade, and eventually they are now being brought to justice. So that is something. A senior military general is one of those suspected who is going to be charged with human trafficking and other serious crimes so that is welcoming. But it is impossible to believe that a senior military officer is acting on his own."
Sunai said further investigations are needed into the subordinates and other officers who may have been involved.
The intense investigation follows the discovery of hundreds of shallow graves in Southern Thailand jungles that border Malaysia. Most of the deceased are believed to be Muslim Rohingya who were fleeing persecution in western Myanmar.
Muslim Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals regularly call on human smugglers to transport them by boat to Malaysia or Indonesia. But escalating ethnic tensions and repression against Rohingya in Myanmar has led to women and children joining the flight to safety.
A Thai crackdown in early May came with the discovery of the graves and the abandoning of several thousand people at sea. The United Nations estimated there are still as many as 1,200 people missing at sea. More than 3,000 had landed in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Thailand has been under pressure from the United States after it was downgraded last year to Tier 3 under the U.S.’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report and faces potential economic and financial sanctions.
Thai police said Tuesday they hope the U.S. will consider raising Thailand’s status given the investigations.
But rights groups believe the investigation and arrests have come too late after a March deadline to make a significant difference to any U.S. decision. The next TIP report is due for release in mid-July.