BANGKOK — A court yesterday approved arrest warrants for four officers – three from the army and one naval officer – in connection with trafficking of Rohingya refugees in southern Thailand.
Despite widespread accounts in recent years of security forces being heavily involved in the trafficking of Rohingya refugees, only one officer had been previously implicated and yesterday’s warrants included the first issued for an officer in the navy.
Cmd. Kampanart Sangthongchin is the first Royal Thai Navy officer to be accused of engaging in trafficking operations, along with warrants for army officers Col. Nattasit Maksuwan, Cpt. Visoot Boonnag and Cpt. Santhat Petchnoi. All three army officers work for the Internal Operation Security Command, a government counter-insurgency agency.
All four are charged with human trafficking.
Defense Minister Pravit Wongsuwan said today he had not studied the warrants’s deatails and urged the public not to assume the men’s guilt.
“I think every [organization] has both good people and bad people,” Pravit said. “Right now, don’t accuse anyone of anything, because they are merely charged with the crime. What the facts are, you have to wait for the investigation first. Don’t slap allegations on anyone.”
The court has issued 150 arrest warrants so far in the crackdown on human trafficking rings in the Thai south, of which 89 have been arrested, police said. Local officials, business owners and bureaucrats have been counted among the suspects.
The crackdown on trafficking networks came after security forces discovered deserted detention camps deep in the jungle near the Thai-Malaysian border in May. The camps were reportedly used by traffickers to hold refugees from neighboring countries – mostly Rohingyas from Myanmar – as hostages to extort ransom from their families.
More than 100 bodies were found in mass graves of refugees who died or were murdered.
Prior to yesterday’s warrants, three-star army general Maj. Gen. Manas Kongpaen was the only military officer to be charged with trafficking. Arrested in June, he is currently being held without bail and awaiting trial.
Defense Minister Pravit said the campaign against trafficking will embrace as many “international principles as possible.” He stopped short of saying those implicated would face criminal prosecution.
“We have been neglecting the problem for too long. From now on, officials will give importance to this matter,” he said. “Those involved in human trafficking will be transferred.”
The complicity of naval officers was the central issue in a recently dismissed defamation case brought by the Royal Thai Navy against two journalists with online news site Phuketwan.
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