Underworld still strong
The decision by Pol Maj Gen Paween Pongsirin to resign speaks volumes about why human trafficking networks can operate so freely here. That is, until recently when Thailand was forced to put a stop to it, or face sanctions from trade partners.
Pol Maj Gen Paween was head of the police investigation into the trafficking of Rohingya migrants following the discovery in May of a mass grave atop Khao Kaew mountain in Songkha near the Thai-Malaysian border. Twenty-six corpses were found buried at a slave camp there; most were believed to be Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The shocking discovery reconfirmed Thailand as a hub for human trafficking, and why the United States put the country on its Tier-3 blacklist for two consecutive years. In order to be removed from the blacklist and to avoid trade sanctions from the European Union, Thailand felt the need to prove it is getting tough with human traffickers.
Pol Maj Gen Paween was tasked with netting Rohingya human trafficking networks. And he delivered. After four months, 153 arrest warrants were issued and 91 suspects arrested. They include powerful figures such as former senior army adviser Lt Gen Manas Kongpan and Patchuban Angchotphan, or "Ko Tong", the former head of the Satun provincial administration organisation.
Last week, he cited safety as a reason for his resignation. That is perfectly understandable. Criminals in cross-border human trafficking syndicates would try every which way to stop the clean-up operation. Several witnesses have been intimidated and told to retract their testimonies. And it does not raise eyebrows that as head of the investigation team, Pol Maj Gen Paween would be targeted too.
What stuns and angers the public, however, are his accounts of how threats have been "subtly" conveyed to him through a number of senior police officers. In his interview with Manager Online, he said he was reprimanded a few times for arresting Lt Gen Manas, which they claimed upset the powers-that-be in the military.
False claim or not, Pol Maj Gen Paween realised the threat was real when he was transferred to the deep South where the criminal network in human trafficking is most active. For him, the transfer order was like sending him into the firing line. If his life was cut short there, all fingers would point to the insurgents, not the human traffickers.
Such an order, while showing a serious lack of support from the top echelons of the police force for subordinates who are undertaking a dangerous job, has also cemented public belief that corruption is a key factor behind the flourishing human trafficking trade in Thailand.
Pol Maj Gen Paween said his resignation aims to prevent his team members from being transferred to posts where they are vulnerable to human traffickers' attacks like him, and to expose the unfair and opaque police transfer system that is not based on meritocracy but cronyism.
Allegations about senior military and police officers being involved in human trafficking are not new. What Pol Maj Gen Paween revealed only reconfirms that underworld forces are still going strong despite the government clampdown. They are waiting for a comeback when the government drops its guard.
Complaints about an unfair system in the police force are not new either. Pol Maj Gen Paween is a whistleblower, calling for police reform. The government should take heed. Any government efforts to clean up the underworld will fail when the arms of the law can still be bought.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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