Thai Human Trafficking Investigator Seeks Asylum in Australia

Pimuk Rakkanam and John Bechtel
151210-asylum-620 Thai men charged with human trafficking arrive at a court in Bangkok, Nov. 10, 2015.

A former policeman who was in charge of investigating one of Thailand’s biggest human trafficking scandals has fled the country to Australia with his family in search of asylum, saying he fears for his life back home.

“I worked in the trafficking area to help human beings who were in trouble,” former Thai Police Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin told a reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC).

“I wasn’t thinking of a personal benefit, but now it is me who is in trouble. I believe there should be some safe place for me, somewhere on this earth to help me.”

Paween told reporters in Australia that influential people in the government, military and police had ordered a stop to the investigation he was heading up.

"Some influential figures were not happy" about warrants issued for the arrests of suspected members of a human trafficking ring, Paween told BBC News.

Nonetheless, some 90 suspected members of a trans-national human trafficking ring, were arrested and charged in the case, including a three-star army general.

The scandal was exposed during a Thai governmental crackdown on illegal immigration that was triggered in May, when the bodies of 32 suspected illegal migrants were discovered at traffickers’ camps abandoned in the jungle in Songkhla, near Thailand’s border with Malaysia. Southern Thailand has long been a transit point for Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshi migrants trying to make it to Malaysia by sea and land.

Thailand launched a simultaneous blockade to prevent more migrants from landing by sea. That action forced loads of human-smuggling boats to sail farther south. Thousands of desperate Rohingyas and Bangladeshis ended up coming ashore in Aceh, Indonesia and Malaysia.

On Dec. 4, Thailand hosted a special meeting in Bangkok on irregular migration in the Indian Ocean. At the meeting, the government called on its Southeast Asian neighbors and Bangladesh to cooperate in preventing such a humanitarian crisis from recurring, now that the rainy season in the region was over and the sailing season was underway again in the ocean and Andaman Sea.

Paween, team charged 153 suspects

Paween was tasked by Thailand’s military junta-led government to lead an investigation from a police station in Hat Yai, another district in Songkhla. His team filed charges against 153 suspects, including military officials, police, local government officials and influential businessmen in southern Thailand.

Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen, then an adviser to the Royal Thai Army, was one of about 90 who were taken into custody.

Paween told AFP that the arrests were made after his investigation found regular payments of up to $380,000 to accounts of key officials. Manas is accused of being a linchpin, using his local influence to funnel migrants through the south, though he has denied the charges.

Manas’ alleged involvement has proven to be an embarrassment to the Thai junta, which seized power last year and declared itself the only institution capable of running a graft-free country, AFP reported.

On Nov. 10, a Bangkok criminal court called for an examination and verification of witnesses and evidence to prepare for an official trial of 88 suspects, the first batch of 91 who will be prosecuted. Paween told the court he was willing to testify even though he had resigned from the police force, effective Dec. 6.

He quit after the National Police Bureau ordered him transferred to a police operations center in Yala province, an area rife with southern insurgents linked to suspects in the trafficking investigation. Fearing retaliation, Paween submitted a letter of resignation on Nov. 5 that was effective earlier this week because he was required to give 30 days’ notice.

Paween told reporters that, while in Thailand, family members received intimidating phone calls from government officials.

Now, he is casting doubt about whether other investigators would testify against military officials and influential figures.

“I think the people there now will not be brave enough to continue,” he told ABC in Australia. “How can the witnesses believe that they will be protected for any period now?”

A Thai criminal court will examine witnesses and evidence this month and February, as the judicial process continues. The official trial is expected to begin in March and could reach a verdict before the end of 2016, according to a judge.


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