Thai Army General Suspected of Having Role in Migrant Trafficking

    Warrant issued for three-star general alleged to have been involved in trafficking Bangladeshis, Rohingya

    By James Hookway
    June 2, 2015 6:37 a.m. ET

    BANGKOK—Police are searching for a three-star general in the Thai army who is suspected of being involved in trafficking migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar through southern Thailand to Malaysia.

    He is the highest-ranking figure so far to have been implicated in a month-long investigation.

    National Police Chief Somyot Poompanmuong told reporters Tuesday he was confident that police had amassed substantial evidence against Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpan, who previously commanded the Thai military’s operations to repel boat people from landing on the country’s southwest coast.

    “I am confident he will not flee,” Gen. Somyot said.

    The arrest warrant, which was issued Sunday, will likely come as an additional blow to Thailand’s armed forces and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. A former army chief who seized power in a military coup last year, Gen. Prayuth has embarked on what he says is an extensive campaign to root out corruption.

    Suspicions of military or other official involvement in the people-trafficking trade have been regularly raised by human-rights groups, however, especially after some 3,500 migrants ethnic-Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and impoverished migrants from Bangladesh landed on the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia after being abandoned by criminal trafficking gangs.

    Military officials previously denied any army involvement in the illegal trade.

    Arrest warrants have been issued for several other prominent figures in southern Thailand as the scandal has snowballed, including a local politician, Patchuban Angchotipan, who subsequently surrendered to police.

    Neither they nor Lt. Gen. Manas could immediately be reached for comment.

    Malaysian authorities, meanwhile, have arrested a dozen police officers for suspected human-trafficking offenses over the past several months, and are being investigated again for possible links to jungle detention camps recently uncovered along Malaysia’s border with Thailand. The graves of 139 people, suspected to be migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, have been uncovered so far, along with dozens more in Thailand.

    The crisis in the Bay of Bengal began after the discovery of the graves in Thailand. That prompted a crackdown on the trafficking rings operating in the south of the country near its border with Malaysia, with the criminal gangs in some cases abandoning their human cargo at sea.

    Myanmar has also come under increasingly scrutiny for its treatment of the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and other basic rights. Delegates at a regional summit on the crisis in Bangkok last week singled out the country’s discriminatory policies as a root cause of the dangerous mass migration, a charge that Myanmar officials have rejected.

    Some 25,000 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh have paid trafficking gangs to take them across the Bay of Bengal in the first quarter of 2015, double the number in the same period last year, the United Nations estimates. Many had been held for ransom before they were released to labor contractors in Malaysia. The U.N. says that some 2,500 people might still be at sea.

    Write to James Hookway at [email protected]