Thai authorities have issued an arrest warrant for a senior military officer over his involvement in human trafficking. He is the first high-ranking army officer to be implicated in the migrant smuggling trade.
Thailand's national police chief confirmed Tuesday that a court had issued a warrant for Lieutenant General Manus Kongpang for his alleged role in the trade of Muslim Rohingya migrants from Myanmar.
"Police are confident in the evidence (against him)," Somyot Poompanmoung told reporters in Bangkok, without elaborating on Manus' alleged role in smuggling.
Dozens of individuals are wanted over trafficking in Thailand, but Manus is the most high profile suspect to appear on the list. Some 51 people - most of them local police and village officials - have so far been arrested as part of a police crackdown on smuggling networks.
The army has suspended Manus pending an internal probe into the allegations. Junta chief and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power in a coup last year vowing to tackle graft, said he was unaware of wider military involvement in trafficking.
"I don't know. I am not the investigator," he said. "Let justice take its course. I will not interfere."
Rights groups have accused Thai officials of turning a blind eye to - or in some cases of directly aiding - smuggling groups, many of whom use Thailand as a stop over point to get refugees to Indonesia and Malaysia.
According to the Royal Thai Army website, Lieutenant General Manus Kongpang had until recently held a senior post in Songkhla province in southern Thailand, which borders Malaysia.
Authorities in Songkhla last month uncovered the skeletal remains of dozens of refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh near a human trafficking camp in the jungle. The grim discovery sparked an international outcry, and led to a crackdown on smuggling networks operating in the Southeast Asian country.
Fearing arrest, smugglers began abandoning their human cargo at sea on crowded and rickety boats. In recent weeks, about 3,500 migrants have landed on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian soil, but the United Nations estimates about 2,000 could still be drifting offshore.
Most of them are Rohingya Muslims - a persecuted minority of more than a million living in Rakhine state of mainly Buddhist Myanmar - or economic migrants from Bangladesh.
nm/kms (Reuters, AFP, dpa)