SIDNEY – Police Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin, Thailand’s former highest-ranking police investigator in charge of human trafficking has fled to Australia, telling Australian media on Thursday that he feared for his life after his findings implicated “influential people” at home who want to silence him.
Former Police Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Guardian Australia newspaper that he was too afraid to return to Thailand and planned to seek political asylum in Australia. A photograph showed him standing on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne, where he said he had arrived a few days ago.
It was the first sighting of Paween in weeks, following unconfirmed reports in Thai media that he had fled. His Thai mobile phones were switched off and he could not be reached for comment.
Paween headed a high-profile task force created earlier this year after the discovery of 36 bodies and shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand in May. The finding exposed a network of jungle camps run by traffickers, who human rights groups have long said worked in complicity with corrupt Thai officials, a claim authorities in Bangkok had routinely denied.
Thailand vowed a crackdown and put Paween in charge. Dozens of people were arrested, including local politicians in southern Thailand, government officials, police and a senior army officer.
Paween told The Guardian that he faced pressure not to pursue the perpetrators too enthusiastically.
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.
Soon after, he was abruptly transferred to an insurgency-plagued region of southern Thailand despite his protests that he would be targeted by traffickers and senior police involved in the trade. He quit his job and fled, he said.
Asked who halted the probe, Paween said: “Influential people involved in human trafficking.”
He did not name anyone, but added: “Human trafficking is a big network that involves lots of the military, politicians and police. While I was supervising the cases I was warned all along.”
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.
Paween’s comments are bound to embarrass Thailand’s Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha, who has promised to rid the country of traffickers and corruption.
The U.S. State Department in July said it was keeping Thailand on its human trafficking blacklist, and retained Thailand’s Tier 3 ranking, the lowest level in its annual Trafficking in Persons report.
The ranking designates Thailand as a country that has not made sufficient progress in tackling human trafficking.