Se­nior Thai army of­fi­cer wanted in mi­grant probe


A Thai court has is­sued an ar­rest war­rant for a high-rank­ing army of­fi­cer over hu­man traf­fick­ing, po­lice said Tues­day, mak­ing him the first mil­i­tary fig­ure in junta-ruled Thai­land to be im­pli­cated in the grim trade in mi­grants from Myan­mar and Bangladesh.

More than 3,500 hun­gry and bedrag­gled Ro­hingya Mus­lims, a per­se­cuted mi­nor­ity in Myan­mar, and Bangladeshi eco­nomic mi­grants, have ar­rived on Thai, Malaysian and In­done­sian soil in re­cent weeks in a re­gional mi­gra- tion cri­sis.

Rights groups have long ac­cused of­fi­cials in junta-ruled Thai­land of turn­ing a blind eye to hu­man traf­fick­ing, or even com­plic­ity in the trade — but un­til now no army of­fi­cial has been im­pli­cated.

A court on Sun­day is­sued an ar­rest war­rant for Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Manas Kong­pan for his in­volve­ment in hu­man traf­fick­ing, ac­cord­ing to Thai na­tional po­lice chief Somyot Poom­pan­moung.

“Po­lice are con­fi­dent in the ev­i­dence,” Somyot told re­porters, adding “I am con­fi­dent he will not flee.”

But Somyot de­clined to give fur­ther de­tails of Manas’ al­leged role in a multi-mil­lion dollar crim­i­nal net­work that has shut­tled mi­grants through Thai­land’s south to Malaysia for sev­eral years.

Manas, who is 58, was a se­nior army of­fi­cer in Thai­land’s south, the fo­cal area of a probe into traf­fick­ing which be­gan af­ter dozens of shal­low graves were found on May 1 in a re­mote mi­grant camp bor­der­ing Malaysia.

Ac­cord­ing to the Royal Thai Army web­site Manas was the com­man­der of the up­per south prov­ince of Chumpon in 2013, be­fore tak­ing a se­nior po­si­tion in Songkhla — which bor­ders Malaysia.

He was moved this year to the Royal Thai Army Head­quar­ters in Bangkok to act as an ad­vi­sor — although it was not im­me­di­ately clear in what ca­pac­ity.

The cur­rent mi­grant cri­sis was sparked by a Thai po­lice crack­down on traf­fick­ing af­ter the grave find, which threw the well-worn routes into chaos with smug­glers aban­don­ing their hu­man cargo in the An­daman Sea and Bay of Ben­gal.

An es­ti­mated 2,500 mi­grants are still be­lieved to be stranded

at sea.

No Pro­tec­tion for Wrong­do­ers

Army Chief Udomdej Sitabutr, who ini­tially ruled out the pos­si­ble in­volve­ment of the mil­i­tary in the scan­dal on Tues­day suspended Manas.

“The army will not pro­tect any wrong­do­ers,” he said, launch­ing an in­ter­nal probe into the al­le­ga­tions.

“But in his (Manas’) case he still has the chance to de­fend him­self.”

Yet the ar­rest war­rant raises awk­ward ques­tions for the mil­i­tary as well as junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a coup over a year ago and was suc­ceeded by Gen­eral Udomdej.

Prayuth has re­peat­edly jus­ti­fied his power grab as the an­ti­dote to wide­spread graft that he says had flour­ished un­der a se­ries of elected civil­ian gov­ern­ments.

Thai po­lice have so far ar­rested 51 peo­ple over the scan­dal, in­clud­ing se­nior lo­cal of­fi­cials, with war­rants out for 33 oth­ers.

In re­cent months mi­grants were given cheap or free pas­sage by boat through the Bay of Ben­gal.

Rights groups say the real money was made in south­ern Thai­land, where bro­kers held the hu­man cargo in jun­gle camps or safe houses await­ing re­lease pay­ments of around US$2,000 from rel­a­tives or friends, or sold them on in bulk to farms and busi­nesses in Malaysia.

Se­nior po­lice of­fi­cers have told AFP their in­ves­ti­ga­tion is cen­tred on three in­flu­en­tial “mas­ter­minds” — Ko Tong, Ko Jow and Ko Nui — who al­legedly ran a net­work run­ning across vast tracts of Thai­land’s south.

All three have been ar­rested. Lit­tle is known about them other than Ko (Big Brother) Tong, who was an in­flu­en­tial lo­cal politi­cian in Satun prov­ince.

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