A Thai three-star general prepared Tuesday to turn himself in on human trafficking charges, and Malaysian authorities said they would begin on Wednesday to excavate 91 more graves of suspected migrants at a new site in the jungle along the northern border with Thailand.
On Tuesday night (local time), Army Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen was en route to Padang Besar in Songkhla province to surrender to local police, according to the Bangkok Post.
"I would like to ask the society not to jump to conclusions that I am guilty," the Post quoted him as saying.
"I would like it to see information from both sides and let the court decide,” he said. “I am asking for justice … because I can explain this and I am ready to defend myself.”
On Monday, a court in Songkhla province charged Manas with four offenses under the nation’s anti-human trafficking and immigration laws, and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Manas is the highest-ranking officer implicated so far in a crackdown on human trafficking by the military-led government that followed the discovery of graves in smuggling camps near the Malaysian border.
The crackdown also precipitated a Thai naval blockade on boatloads of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh trying to land in Thailand, which led to thousands of them coming ashore in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Earlier Tuesday, Manas went to the Royal Thai Army’s southern regional headquarters in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, where he appeared before an army-appointed inquiry committee to answer questions about the allegations against him, the Post reported.
In the meantime, the army has suspended Manas, Commander-in-Chief Udomdesh Sitabutr said.
“There was no expanded investigation on any other persons within the army yet, and we have not found a network of Lt. Gen. Manas yet, if it exists,” Udomdesh told BenarNews.
The army will let Manas defend himself in court but, if he is convicted, he will be further disciplined, Udomdesh said.
Manas is charged with collaborating in human trafficking, providing assistance to illegal migrants, detaining others and holding them for ransom, police said.
Across the border
On the Malaysian side of the border, authorities will begin to dig up 91 graves of suspected migrants in another corner of Perlis state, the state-run Bernama news agency reported Monday.
Thai police have given Malaysian police permission to access the graves via Thai the side of the border, because it is difficult to reach from the Malaysian side.
The newly discovered graves are located in the Mata Ayer Forest Reserve in Lubuk Sireh.
Last week, Malaysia announced the discovery of 28 abandoned traffickers’ camps containing 139 migrants’ graves in Wang Kelian, Perlis, about two hours by foot from the new site.
As of Sunday, the remains of 35 people had been recovered from the Bukit Wang Burma forest in Wang Kelian, Bernama quoted a police official as saying.
Nasueroh contributed to this report.