Policeman who led migrant-trafficking probe seeks asylum in Australia

Policeman who led migrant-trafficking probe seeks asylum in Australia

Pol Maj Gen Paween Pongsirin, September 2014 (above): National hero for bringing the human traffickers to account. This month: Asylum bid indicates failure of government to battle the human trafficking scourge. (File photo by Bangkok Post)
Pol Maj Gen Paween Pongsirin, September 2014 (above): National hero for bringing the human traffickers to account. This month: Asylum bid indicates failure of government to battle the human trafficking scourge. (File photo by Bangkok Post)

The police major-general who led the investigation into the widespread trafficking of Rohingya Muslim migrants is seeking political asylum in Australia, saying influential figures in the government, military and police want him dead, Australian media reported Thursday.

The asylum request by Pol Maj Gen Paween Pongsirin is likely to hurt the government politically, given its often-trumpeted commitment to cracking down on trafficking.

Pol Maj Gen Paween had raised concerns about his safety before, but authorities were apparently unable to calm his fears. In fact, he says his posting to the deep South, where intricate webs of trafficking networks were uncovered, was designed to kill him.

There was no response from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha or his military regime by early Friday.

National police spokesman Detnarong Sutthichanbancha said Thursday night that police are investigating Pol Maj Gen Paweeen's claims and would be happy to discuss the probe with him.

Pol Maj Gen Paween arrived in Melbourne earlier this week on a tourist visa, but told an Australian Broadcasting Corporation television programme and the Guardian Australia newspaper he plans to seek asylum.

"I worked in the trafficking area to help human beings who were in trouble," he told the Guardian. "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."

Pol Maj Gen Paween quit the Royal Thai Police on Nov 5 after being transferred to the Southern Border Provinces Police Operation Centre in the Far South, where he said he had made numerous enemies while investigating and arresting influential figures involved in trafficking of Myanmar and Bangladeshi migrants there.

With his task force having issued 153 warrants and detained 91 people, he said the transfer to the traffickers' sphere of influence put him in danger.

Pol Maj Gen Paween was tapped to head the investigation after more than 30 migrant graves were found in an abandoned traffickers camp in Songkhla province on May 1. The discovery became an international scandal as more camps were found on both sides of the Thai-Malaysian border and the resulting crackdown sparked the boatpeople crisis that stranded thousands of Myanmar and Bangladeshi migrants at sea throughout the summer.

Among those arrested were former senior army adviser Lt Gen Manas Kongpan, a second army officer and scores of top local politicians. A navy officer sought on another arrest warrant remains at large.

The investigation was closed after Pol Maj Gen Paween submitted his first investigation report in late October. He complained to international media that the inquiry was shut down prematurely, saying more suspects were still out there.

National police chief Chakthip Chaijinda accepted his resignation on Nov 16 and it became effective Dec 6. After that, he was free to travel abroad.

The 57-year-old wasted no time in getting to Australia.

Down under, Maj Gen Paween now says that "from the beginning" he was pressured not to pursue the organisers of the trafficking network too aggressively. But he told the Guardian he "followed the evidence", leading to 88 defendants who "let victims starve, denied health treatments for sick victims and hid bodies" ending up in court.

"Influential people are involved in human trafficking. There are some bad police and bad military who do these kind of things. Unfortunately, those bad police and bad military are the ones that have power," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

"By re-posting me to the Deep South of Thailand it means they wanted to kill me," he said.

He told the newspaper he fears the upcoming trials will see many of those charged walk free. He was supposed to testify at those trials and claims other witnesses will be intimidated.

"I feel so sad and it's so unfair that these people will not be punished," he said.

Pol Maj Gen Paween's asylum case likely will reverberate loudly around the world. He told the Guardian he has doesn't know how the Thai government will react and says he is "deeply saddened" by being forced to leave.


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