Bangkok, Thailand – Thai police say they are considering a defamation case against a police officer who fled to Australia and is claiming political asylum.
Police Major-General Paween Ponsirin was the most senior police official entrusted with the investigation into human trafficking after mass graves were discovered in southern Thailand in May.
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Only weeks before a human trafficking trial was due to begin in Thailand, Paween said that his investigation had implicated senior military and police officials in the racket.
He told Australian media on Thursday that he now fears for his life.
Jakthip Chaijinda, the Royal Thai police chief, said an investigation would now decide whether Praween’s comments were defamatory.
“I don’t know the reason why he had to go and speak about this issue but he should not talk about this because it could damage the country,” Jakthip said.
Starved to death
More than 30 graves were discovered in the Thailand-Malaysia border area. Many of the bodies were believed to be Rohingya Muslims. Others were refugees from Bangladesh.
Rohingya Muslims are a persecuted minority in Myanmar, where their nationality is disputed and they have few rights.
They often flee on boats in an attempt to reach the relative safety of Malaysia.
Many are ensnared by trafficking networks along the way.
Ransoms are demanded from families back in Myanmar and those who cannot pay face dismal consequences including beatings and rape in makeshift camps in the jungles on the Thai-Malaysian border.
Police reports on the mass graves found in Thailand indicate the victims starved to death or died of disease while held by traffickers who were awaiting payment of ransoms before smuggling them into Malaysia, Human Rights Watch said in a report.
“I worked in the trafficking area to help human beings who were in trouble,” Praween told Australian media.
“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.”
Last month, 88 people appeared in court in Thailand for a procedural hearing including, for the first time, a senior military official, General Manas Kongpan, who is alleged to be the mastermind of the operation.
In total, 153 arrest warrants were issued, including for members of the military as well as senior local officials and business leaders. Ninety-one people were charged.
Despite the number of arrests, Praween says his investigation was suddenly halted.
He told Australian media that the investigation was hampered by high-level officials involved in trafficking.
“There are good soldiers but the police and the military are involved in running the human trafficking,” he said.
“Unfortunately the bad police and the bad military are the ones that have power.”
Praween fled to Australia after he was forcibly transferred to southern Thailand, an area where many influential traffickers wield power.
“By re-posting me to the deep south of Thailand, it means they wanted to kill me,” said Praween.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, said: “Praween has a reputation as a straight shooter.
“He’s an experienced investigator. So when he was appointed to head the investigation into the trafficking of the Rohingya boat people, it was seen as indicating Thailand was determined to ensure accountability for these serious crimes.
“It’s no understatement to say that this is a test case for Thailand to fulfil its promises to eradicate human trafficking.”
Praween resigned from his police job in early December. Just days later, he arrived in Melbourne, Australia, on a tourist visa.
Praween’s claim for asylum is likely to embarrass the Thai government and hinder the ongoing legal proceedings.
He was due to give evidence against many of the suspects and, without this testimony, it is feared many cases will collapse. Other witnesses have also gone into hiding.
Thailand’s military government denies that their investigation into human trafficking is flawed.
Immigration officials in Australia could not confirm whether they have received an application for political asylum from Praween.