Thai cop who implicated officials in trafficking seeks asylum

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Thailand has long been a hub for the trafficking of persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, who in recent years have been joined by Bangladeshi economic migrants

Thailand has long been a hub for the trafficking of persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, who in recent years have been joined by Bangladeshi economic migrants (AFP Photo/Christophe Archambault)

The police general who led Thailand's probe into human trafficking said Thursday he was in Australia seeking political asylum, after fleeing the kingdom fearing for his life for implicating senior officials in the grim trade.

Thailand has long been a major hub for human trafficking and people smuggling, with rights groups accusing officials of turning a blind eye to the multi-million dollar industry -- and even complicity in it.

Major General Paween Pongsirin headed a police investigation into trafficking after dozens of shallow graves were uncovered on the Thai-Malaysia border.

They were the sites of trafficking camps where victims -- mainly from Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority and Bangladesh -- were held in appalling conditions, many awaiting ransom payments from relatives for their release.

"I am asking for asylum because living in (Thailand) at this time is very dangerous," Paween told AFP Thursday after arriving in Melbourne earlier this week on a tourist visa.

"I feared for my life because of the human trafficking cases. During my work... I was threatened and it became worse and worse."

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

"No one can protect me now. There is no sympathy, or mercy, for me from my bosses," he told AFP.

The kingdom's pivotal role in the trade emerged in May as people-smugglers abandoned thousands of migrants at sea or in jungle camps after a Thai crackdown.

Thai officials are accused of orchestrating smuggling routes through the south of their country to neighbouring Malaysia, raking in huge sums of money over several years.

Dozens of people including Manas Kongpan, a powerful Thai army general in the south, and other local officials appeared in court last month charged with trafficking.

The police case against the 88 accused pivots on bank transfers of hundreds of thousands of dollars from known traffickers.

- Embarrassment for ruling junta -

Paween told AFP 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.

Manas is accused of being a linchpin, using his local influence to funnel migrants through the south, though he denies the charges.

His alleged involvement is hugely embarrassing to the Thai junta, which seized power last year declaring themselves as the only institution capable of running a graft-free country.

The junta trumpeted the arrests as proof that the kingdom will no longer tolerate the trade and will pursue complicit officials no matter how powerful they are.

But speaking to AFP before he left the country and visibly shaken, the policeman said he was ordered to stop the investigation prematurely and that many more officials were likely involved.

Paween's unit was disbanded and he was transferred to Thailand's three insurgency-hit southernmost provinces, and the probe was declared complete in early October.

He told AFP in Melbourne Thursday that despite his experience he hoped the key anti-trafficking work would continue, notwithstanding the difficulties.

"I can't handle the cases anymore, but I think the prosecutor and the judge are trying their best in their situation, as well as the witnesses and my team," he said.

Thailand has long been a hub for the trafficking of persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, who in recent years have been joined by Bangladeshi economic migrants.

With the monsoon ending, rights groups warn that boats are likely to set sail over coming weeks.

The belated Thai crackdown came after the United States last year relegated the kingdom to the bottom rung of an influential report ranking nations on their anti-trafficking efforts.

It has remained on the bottom tier for a second year in a row, alongside nations like Iran, Libya, North Korea and Syria.