MP reveals reason for human trafficking investigator’s exile

Move Forward Party (MFP) MP Rangsiman Rome revealed during last week’s mid-year censure debate that Maj Gen Paween Pongsirin, a senior police officer investigating Rohingya human trafficking in 2015, decided to seek asylum in Australia due to threats and pressure from his superiors.

Rangsiman Rome (centre)

In 2014, a mass grave and evidence of trafficking was found on Khao Kaeo mountain in Sadao District, Songkhla. The bodies of at least 30 Rohingya refugees were found around a makeshift camp. Survivors said that they had to pay anywhere from 10,000 – 70,000 baht to traffickers in order to board a boat to Malaysia, but when they landed in Thailand, they were held for ransom by the traffickers, who would call their relatives and threaten them for money. If their families could not pay, they would be made to perform hard labour or left to die in the camp. Survivors also said that many were raped, beaten, or murdered if their families could not pay their ransom.

Paween, then the Deputy Commissioner of the Provincial Police Region 8, was appointed to lead the investigation, which led to the arrest of over 100 people, including police and military officers. Maj Gen Manas Kongpan, a senior military officer and Director of Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4, was sentenced to 82 years in prison. He died in detention in June 2021, reportedly from heart failure.

Paween resigned from the police force in November 2015 and travelled to Australia, where he was later granted asylum.

According to Rangsiman, the MFP was given Paween’s declaration to the Australian authorities, submitted when he was seeking asylum, which states that he believes his life is under threat in Thailand from “politicians and high ranking members of the military and police who are unhappy” with the arrests he made in the Rohingya trafficking case. He was also concerned that he would be accused of royal defamation.

In his declaration, Paween said that he did not receive support from other officers while searching for an important eyewitness in the case, who was the wife of a man involved in the human trafficking network. He said that he received calls from senior police officers telling him that they will not be providing information for him and his team. Paween and his team ended up conducting their own investigation and found the witness in Malaysia.

Paween also said in his declaration that, after he secured an arrest warrant for Gen Manas Kongpan based on evidence of money transfers obtained from a search of a suspect’s house, he was contacted by a senior police officer with connections to Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan. The officer told him that Gen Prawit wanted to know whether Gen Manas would be released on bail if he surrenders, and that Gen Prawit wanted Gen Manas to be granted bail. Paween said that he explained to the officer that none of the suspects were released on bail at that point, and that, since the case involved a serious crime, suspects cannot be granted bail out of the concern that they may impede the investigation. 

The evidence was also not handed to Paween despite the investigation being conducted jointly between Paween’s team and the Provincial Police Region 8. Paween said he found out about the evidence from media reports, and had to send an official letter requesting that the evidence be handed over. He claimed that the evidence obtained from the search was sent directly to the then-Deputy Commander General Chaktip Chaijinda, who ordered the Region 8 team to withhold the evidence from Paween’s team.

Paween said that he received “warnings” about his safety. One of his subordinates who went to question suspects detained at Na Thawi Prison met with Gen Manas who asked the subordinate to tell Paween that he “[has] many friends” and that Paween “should be very careful.” The Chief of the Ministry’s Inspector General Department at the time also warned him that his life was in danger and that he should stop his investigation.

Paween was also told by the then Deputy Commissioner of the Police Strategy Office that “the army is very upset” that he arrested Gen Manas. When he and his team sought arrest warrants for three army officers and a navy officer, his superior was “shocked and frightened” and ordered him to seek cancellation of the warrants, which Paween said he could not do “in good faith.” He was instead ordered to keep the warrants from the media.

Paween said that he was forced to close the investigation in September 2015 due to lack of financial and political support. In October 2015, Paween received an order from the Committee of the Office of the Police Commission transferring him to the Southern Border Provinces Police Operation Centre based in Yala, which he felt was a serious threat to his life, since the trafficking network is influential in the southern borders. He asked Gen Chaktip to review the transfer order, since he felt his life would be under threat, but was then told that he must accept the transfer. On 5 November 2015, Paween submitted his resignation from the police force, effective on 6 December 2015.

Paween's application to the Office of the Royal Court Police (Picture from MFP)

After he submitted his resignation, he said he received a call from the then Commissioner of the Central Investigation Bureau that King Vajiralongkorn, then Crown Prince, did not want to see him resign and that he should be transferred to the Crown Prince’s personal guard unit. He was then summoned to a meeting with Gen Chakthip to withdraw his resignation. He was told by Gen Chakthip and a senior police officer who was an assistant to the Commissioner-General that he could either serve as the Deputy Commissioner of the Central Investigation Bureau to work on human trafficking cases or serve in the Crown Prince’s Guard. However, he was summoned to meet Gen Chakthip again in November 2015, and was told that he must “resign and remain silent.” Pol Gen Chumpol Manmai, who Paween claimed served closely with the Crown Prince, also told him in a phone call that he must resign. Paween was concerned that remaining as investigator would be seen as an insult to the Crown Prince, and that he would be accused of royal defamation under Section 112 of the Criminal Code, or the lèse  majesté law.

Rangsiman said he was told by Paween that there is still investigation work to be done, and that the Navy is likely to be involved in the human trafficking network, which has to transport a large number of people by boat through Thai waters. There are also questions whether the military is supporting the network and whether there are people in parliament who have to explain themselves. Rangsiman also asked whether Gen Manas’ death, apparently from heart failure even though he was previously healthy, is related to this case. He also presented an application form to the Office of the Royal Court Police, which Paween had already filled out but did not submit.

Paween left Thailand on 16 November 2015 and went to Singapore. He then travelled to Australia on a visitor visa, arriving in Australia on 5 December 2015. In July 2017, he was granted asylum by the Australian authorities.

Rangsiman noted that Paween decided to leave the country out of the concern that he would meet the same fate as Suriyan “Mor Yong” Sucharitpolwong and Prakrom Warunprapha, both of whom served under the Crown Prince and died in custody after being charged with royal defamation. He asked whether this is the fate of anyone who stays true to their duty but does not try to appeal to the elite, and why Paween’s superiors did not protect him.

“The true reason that this government does not support people like Paween in their work is because in fact the big human traffickers are still around. They are in the Government House, in the ministries, or maybe even in this parliament right now,” Rangsiman said.

Paween Pongsirin

Paween said in an online interview with Rangsiman and Progressive Movement leader Pannika Wanich following Rangsiman’s presentation that it was one of the happiest days in his life, and that everything Rangsiman said is true.

He said that he has to live like other refugees in Australia. He has to learn a new language and find a job to make a living, and that he was unprepared, since he couldn’t speak English and had no money. He felt that Rangsiman’s presentation partially gave him justice, but part is still missing, and that he was sure that his investigation would lead to those in power who were involved in the case if Thailand was a true democracy and ruled by people who are honest and brave enough to let justice take its course.

In response, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha said that Paween should file his complaint through the proper channels and that he should return to Thailand and put his case through the justice system. He also insisted that the authorities will not protect those involved in the human trafficking network, and that Paween will not be harmed since the country has laws.

Police Chief Gen Suwat Chaengyodsuk also said in a press conference on 22 February that despite rumours, charges have not been filed against Paween, and that the police can guarantee Paween’s safety if he returns to Thailand. He also said that he does not know the details, or what is causing concern for Paween.

Meanwhile, Gen Anupong Paochinda, former Army Commander in Chief and current Minister of the Interior, refused to be interviewed when reporters waiting at Government House on 21 February 2022 tried to ask him about Rangsiman’s parliamentary address. 

The MFP said that it will file a petition with the House Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice, and Human Rights to continue investigating the human trafficking networks, and to have the government explain the case to the public, since relevant officials have not given satisfactory answers and attempted to evade media interviews.

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