Sunday 22 April 2018

Thai police chief investigating human trafficking flees to Australia after 'high level' death threats

Major General Paween Pongsirin said that he fled Thailand after receiving death threats
Major General Paween Pongsirin said that he fled Thailand after receiving death threats

Philip Sherwell

Thailand's highest-ranking police official in charge of human trafficking has fled to Australia and says he fears for his life.

General Paween Pongsrin said that he fled his homeland because influential Thai figures implicated in the grim human smuggling trade wanted him dead.

His investigation, launched after dozens of shallow graves were uncovered in May, initially made good progress.

Nearly 90 people, including a Thai army general and powerful regional officials, were arrested and dozens appeared in court last month charged with trafficking.

But Maj Gen Paween said that his probe was abruptly halted by “highly influential people” within the military-led government, the army and the police.

He said that he fled the country after receiving death threats and arrived this week in Melbourne.

He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Guardian Australia that he will seek political asylum there.

"A lot of government officials should be facing justice," Maj Gen Paween told ABC.

"There are good soldiers but the police and the military are involved in running the human trafficking.

"Unfortunately the bad police and the bad military are the ones that have power."

Human rights groups have long claimed that Thai officials were involved in the trafficking of refugees and migrants by land and sea.

The country’s pivotal role in the trade emerged after the discovery of corpses at the traffickers’ camps along the Thai-Malaysian border.

The victims – mainly from Burma’s persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority and Bangladesh – were held there in appalling conditions as their captors demanded ransom payments from relatives before onward journeys to Malaysia.

As Thailand cracked down on the trade, people smugglers abandoned thousands of migrants already on boats at sea.

Maj Gen Paween told Agence France Presse that the arrests were made after his probe had found regular payments of up to $380,000 to the accounts of a number of key officials.

Gen Manas Kongpan, who was among those who appeared in court, is accused of orchestrating the smuggling of migrants through his southern Thai stronghold.

He denies the charges.

The ruling junta highlighted the arrests as proof that the new military government would not tolerate the trade and was willing to pursue high-placed figures.

The country’s military leaders are keen to lifted out of the bottom tier of nations ranked by the United States for their anti-trafficking efforts.

But Maj Gen Paween has claimed that his investigation was abruptly ended in October while many other officials suspected of involvement remained free.

In an interview broadcast on Thursday, he told ABC: "I feel deeply sad. It is so unfair that people who did these things will not be punished."

After his unit disbanded, he was told that he was being transferred to country’s south, where ethnic Malay Muslim rebels have fought a decade-long insurgency.

He resigned from the police rather than take up a new post, after allegedly receiving death threats.

"No one can protect me now,” he said.

“There is no sympathy, or mercy, for me from my bosses.”

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