A high-ranking member of Thailand’s police force charged with investigating human trafficking has fled to Australia and requested asylum.
Major General Paween Pongsirin said he made the decision to seek refuge because he believed his life was in danger after the investigation uncovered evidence that members of Thailand’s military and police force were participating in human trafficking operations.
Mr. Paween flew to Melbourne on a tourist visa this week, where he requested political protection.
“I worked in the trafficking area to help human beings who were in trouble,” he said. “But now it is me who is in trouble. I believe there should be some safe place for me, somewhere on this earth."
Paween began leading the investigation in May, after more than 30 bodies were found buried in graves near Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia.
Many refugees are escaping ethnic and religious persecution and poverty in Myanmar and Bangladesh, while Thailand is home to more than 430,000 stateless people, the most in the world.
Paween’s investigation has led to allegations of trafficking against 153 people, including at least one senior military official, though he said other government officials would be implicated. The suspected traffickers are accused of starving refugees and denying health treatment, among other offenses.
Thailand’s military has held leadership in the country since a coup d'état last year.
"He was brought in as a hard-nosed experienced investigator, someone who has a reputation for being incorruptible," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch Asia to ABC News. "He now feels it is no longer safe to stay in Thailand."
Paween told the Guardian he resigned in November after the five-month investigations was halted. Despite his protests, Paween was transferred to southern Thailand, where he said "senior police" officials were linked to the human trafficking trade.
“Human trafficking is a big network that involves lots of the military, politicians and police,” he told the Guardian. “Unfortunately, those bad police and bad military are the ones that have power.”
Thai authorities told Reuters they were unaware of threats to Paween’s life.
Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have struggled to deal with the flood of refugees pouring into their countries. The three nations used military blockades earlier this year to turn away the refugees, leaving thousands stranded at sea. The International Organization for Migration said as a result hundreds of people died on the open water.
Last week, Thailand’s foreign minister called for a more integrated and vigorous approach to the migrant crisis.
William Lacy Swing, the IOM’s director indicated that, without measures such as short-term visas and the elimination of blockades, human trafficking would remain a major issue in the region and that “bad policies are unintentionally subsidizing the smugglers."
Paween said he fears the impending trial for the 153 accused traffickers may be compromised because of links to powerful people. The international community including the United States has been pressing Thailand to address the migrant crisis.
“It is no exaggeration to say that this is a fundamental test case of the commitments that Thailand’s leaders have made to eradicate human trafficking,” Robertson said.