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Tags: Thailand | migrants | police | army | myanmar | Rohingya

Thai Army Officer Faces Charges in Trafficking Inquiry

Tuesday, 02 June 2015 06:15 AM EDT

A court has issued an arrest warrant for a high-ranking Thai army officer for involvement in human trafficking, police said Tuesday, making him the first military figure in junta-ruled Thailand to be implicated in the trade

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, part of a regional migration crisis.

Rights groups have long accused Thai officials of turning a blind eye to human trafficking, or even complicity in the trade — but until now no military personnel have 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 multimillion dollar criminal network that has shuttled migrants through southern Thailand to Malaysia for several years.

Manas, 58, was a long-serving army officer in Thailand's south, the focal area of a probe into trafficking which gained momentum 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 adviser — 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 and had 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.



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, adding that Manas "still has the chance to defend himself."

Yet the arrest warrant raises awkward questions for the military as well as junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who has repeatedly justified his coup last year as a much-needed antidote to graft that he says had flourished under a series of elected civilian governments.

On being questioned about possible wider military involvement in trafficking following the allegations against Manas, Prayut said he was unaware of other cases.

"I don't know. I am not the investigator," he told reporters in Bangkok Tuesday, but added "Wrong is wrong. Let justice take its course. I will not interfere."

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 $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 centered 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. Ko (Big Brother) Tong was an influential local politician in Satun province but little is known about the other two.

Myanmar's treatment of its Rohingya population — the majority of whom are denied citizenship and face restrictions on everything from travel to employment — has come under widespread criticism for catalyzing the mass exodus of migrants in recent years.

On Monday U.S. President Barack Obama added to the calls on the country to end discrimination against the Rohingya, saying it was essential if Myanmar wanted "to succeed" in its transition to democracy.

© AFP 2023

A Thai court has issued an arrest warrant for a high-ranking army officer for involvement in human trafficking, police said Tuesday, making him the first military figure in junta-ruled Thailand to be implicated in the trade.
Thailand, migrants, police, army, myanmar, Rohingya
Tuesday, 02 June 2015 06:15 AM
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