BANGKOK (AP) — A senior Thai army officer turned himself in Wednesday to face charges over his alleged involvement in a human trafficking scandal that included people from Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia, marking the first arrest of a military official since authorities launched a widening probe last month.
More than 50 people, including several local politicians and officials, were arrested after the discovery of 36 bodies believed to be those of Myanmar’s Rohingya migrants at abandoned trafficking camps near the Thai-Malaysian border. Police are searching for more than 30 others of suspected involvement in the trafficking networks.
Southern Thailand has long been a regional trafficking hub for migrants from the persecuted ethnic minority in Myanmar and for Bangladeshis seeking a better life in other countries, and human rights groups accuse Thai authorities of collusion in the trafficking.
Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen, a senior adviser to the Royal Thai Army who once oversaw the human trafficking issue in a coastal province, faces multiple charges of human trafficking, assisting aliens to illegally enter the country, illegally detaining people and seeking ransoms to help the migrants.
After an arrest warrant was issued for Manas earlier this week, he arrived at the national police headquarters to hear the charges before he was sent to the southern province of Songkhla for questioning.
“He insisted that he had no involvement and denied the charges,” national police chief Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung told reporters.
The military has denied any involvement in the trafficking syndicates.
Asian nations have been struggling in the face of growing waves of desperate migrants who are landing on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and other regional countries. In the last few weeks alone, at least 4,600 people have washed ashore or been rescued by fishermen, and several thousand more are believed to still be at sea after human smugglers abandoned their boats amid a regional crackdown.