Top Thai Investigator in Rohingya Case Runs for his Life

The sudden departure of Thailand’s chief human trafficking investigator, Police Major General Paween Pongsirin, for Australia, apparently in fear for his life, raises the question of who and what he was afraid of when he fled. The top ranks of Thai army and law enforcement have been wracked with behind-the-scenes scandal for weeks, including suicides, disappearances and flights abroad.

No one knows who is connected to the forces that drove Paween abroad, although many others who have disappeared, died or committed suicide appear to have been in circles revolving around Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who is expected to inherit the throne of his ailing father, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turned 88 on Dec. 5.

The chaos illustrates the enormous disarray at the top of Thailand’s police and military, and the harsh crackdown led by former Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha in May of 2014 has done nothing to clean it up.

Paween meets with rights NGO

Fortify Rights, a nonprofit human rights NGO based in Southeast Asia and registered in the US and Switzerland, issued a press release on Dec. 10 saying Paween, a key witness in a high profile mass criminal trial of 91 alleged rights traffickers in Thailand, feared for his life and is now at an undisclosed location.

Paween was tasked with the investigation after mass graves were discovered in southern Thailand and on the Malaysian border in May of 2015. Paween said his investigation, which led to arrest warrants for 153 people including local politicians, businessmen, four policemen, members of the Thai army and navy and Internal Security Operation Command, was stopped by what he said were “high-ranking government officials” who should be facing justice.

“There are good soldiers but the police and the military are involved in running the human trafficking,” he told Australian television network ABC. "Unfortunately the bad police and the bad military are the ones that have power."

Roll of dead and missing

Most of those who have taken flight or been arrested have been charged with lese-majeste, the country’s draconian law against insulting the monarchy. Those who have fled the country include Police Gen. Khachachart Boondee as well as Maj. Gen. Suchart Prommai, former 11th Infantry Regiment commander now stripped of military rank; Police Col. Col Pairoj Rojanakhajorn, a former chief of the Crime Suppression Division’s Sub-Division 2; and his-then deputy Lt Col Thammawat Hiranyalekha.

Police Major Prakrom Warunprapa, and Major General Pisitsak Saneewong na Ayutthaya, the prince’s chief bodyguard, supposedly committed suicide in jail. The prince’s soothsayer, Suriyan Sucharitpolwong, aka Mor Yong, supposedly died of renal failure. Former police spokesman Prawuth Thawornsiri also disappeared

On May 22, 2014, Prayuth staged the coup that ended a democratically elected government, ostensibly because of civil unrest and widespread corruption, which Prayuth theatrically said he would clean up. What was described to Asia Sentinel as a reign of terror in top military and palace circles in November, appears to have grown considerably worse.

Connection to princess’s family

The smuggling racket in southern Thailand, which includes not only refugees but oil smuggling and other commodities, was thrown wide open in November of 2014 when some top police officials, including Pongpat Chayaphan, the head of the Central Investigation Bureau, Thailand’s FBI, were arrested on charges of soliciting bribes for job appointments and smuggling. Pongpat was the uncle of then-princess Princess Srirasmi Akharapongpreecha, Maha Vajiralongkorn’s consort.

Princess Srirasmi was sent packing in favor of a new wife, a former Thai Airlines flight attendant. Her removal, and that of Pongpat, resulted in a widespread purge of police officials who were connected to the princess’s family.

The smuggling operation, rather than being cleaned out, is said to have been passed on to other police officials and perhaps some army ones. Whatever happened, a climate of fear is said to have seized top officials. Paween told Fortify Rights that the trials were now compromised.

"How can the witnesses believe that they will be protected for any period now?" he said, adding that the police have lost their nerve to prosecute the cases properly. "I think the people there now will not be brave enough to continue," he told the NGO.

Into the lion’s den

At the beginning of November, according to Fortify Rights, Paween was told he was being transferred to the south of Thailand, where many of the suspects – basically warlords that he is pursuing -- live and have influence. But he resigned before being transferred, citing serious concerns for his security.

"I had to do my duty [and] not to think of dangers or trouble," Paween told the NGO. "But now I realize how dangerous it was."

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

Trial goes dead

The now-moribund trial was a “test of Thailand’s commitment to end human trafficking, and the prognosis isn’t looking good,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Paween and other investigators should be supported to combat human trafficking in Thailand, not be forced into hiding.”

Paween told Fortify Rights that high-ranking government officials repeatedly obstructed and prematurely halted the investigation before further wrongdoing and complicity could be uncovered.

“We had a plan to continue to track the financial records to complete the evidence that we had on hand,” Paween said. “If we were able to continue the investigation, I think we might find more connections between higher-level officials and the human trafficking trade.”

The Thai Government allegedly failed to provide necessary financial resources for the investigation, he said. Senior government officials repeatedly warned investigators to stop investigating military officials and promoted complicit authorities to higher positions while demoting investigators for doing their jobs effectively. More than 60 suspects in the case are still at-large with outstanding warrants for their arrest.

“There are many Thai officials with integrity who want to bring human traffickers to justice, but their hands are tied,” said Smith. “This will be nothing more than a show trial until Thailand undertakes a fully supported investigation into official complicity in human trafficking.”

Another police officer involved in the investigation told Fortify Rights that influential figures, politicians, and military and police officers “exercised their power to obstruct the investigation” in various ways, including through the intimidation of investigators and witnesses. There are at least two criminal cases being brought against alleged traffickers for intimidating witnesses.