(17 January) Much doubt remains concerning the arrests of three armed individuals said to undercover operatives of the Royal Thai Navy.
The police made the arrest at around 00.10 yesterday at a checkpoint on Krung Kasem Road, Bangkok, when the officers stopped and searched the vehicle driven by the group. A group of anti-government protesters has been camping at a rally site nearby.
Upon the search the police uncovered a number of handguns, a silencer, and some ammunition, while the license plate of the vehicle was revealed to be a fake one.
The suspects were identified as Lt. Pairat Plai-Ngam, 47, Petty Officer Pairint Photi, 26, and Petty Officer Ballang Khantaphon, 35. All of them claimed to be Navy infiltrator team on the mission to track down illicit drugs, but police also found that the three officers possessed ′VIP′ identification cards issued by anti-government protest leadership.
The suspects were initially charged with holding weaponry without authorisation, and using false license plate on their vehicle.
But shortly afterwards Rear Admiral Winai Klom-In, Chief of the Navy Special Warfare Command, visited Nang Lerng Police Station, where the three officers were being detained, with a letter confirming the identity of the three Navy agents.
Rear Admiral Winai reportedly told the police that the three officers were indeed on a undercover mission to track down narcotics trade from eastern Thailand into Bangkok.
The weapons the officers were carrying had been properly issued by the Navy, Rear Admiral Winai said, and the three were given counterfeit protesters′ ID cards so they could blend into anti-government protest rally site during their mission if they were ever required to do so.
Nevertheless, Rear Admiral Winai assured the police that he will not interfere with the police investigation.
More than 20 Navy officers later visited the three suspects at Nang Lerng Police Station throughout the day, a senior police officer at the station said.
However, the nature of the undercover mission allegedly undertaken by the three suspects became increasingly questionable, as other high-ranking Navy officers failed to explain to the press what the three infiltrators were doing near an anti-government protest site.
Admiral Pijarn Teeranate, Chief of the Royal Thai Fleet, told our correspondent yesterday that the Navy is currently investigating the incident. Although he confirmed that the three suspects are indeed infiltrator operatives, Admiral Pijarn said the Navy had given them no order to attend the protest rally.
"If they wish to join the protest, they must do it personally, in the manner of civilians," Admiral Pijarn said, "If they were doing something illegal, they must face the same legal prosecution like civilians".
Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Kan Dee-Ubon, Spokesperson of the Royal Thai Navy, stated that the Royal Thai Navy Chief, Admiral Narong Pipattanasai, had been informed about the incident.
According to Rear Admiral Kan, the Navy Chief had instructed Admiral Winai to determine as soon as possible whether the arrested Navy officers had acted beyond their orders.
If they are found guilty, Rear Admiral Kan said, a special commission will be appointed to hand down punishment to the suspects, both in disciplinary and legal manners. "There won′t be any protection [for the suspects] in the investigation," the Navy spokesperson promised.
Nevertheless, Rear Admiral Kan said there is a possibility that the three officers might have been on a mission to track down a narcotics delivery which would have forced them to enter the anti-government rally, but insisted that a thorough and detailed investigation will clarify the matter soon.
The incident came at a time when the roles of the powerful Thai military in the ongoing anti-government protests are intensely scrutinised.
Many pro-government Redshirts activists have accused the military of aiding the anti-government faction, and of plotting a coup against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, but high-ranking members of the armed forces stressed that the military is not taking any side in the conflict (it should be noted, though, that they refused to explicitly rule out the possibility of a coup).
The incident even led Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul to announce that he had ordered a separate investigation into the arrests of the three Navy officers.
Mr. Surapong also expressed his concern that the officers would have carried state-issued firearms into the protest site if they had not been stopped by the police.
"There has been reports that some military officers have taken up jobs as guards for the protesters," Mr. Surapong said.
Just today, the Ministry of Defence issued an "urgent" statement addressed to all units of the armed forces, urging them to keep their subordinates within strict discipline and stay out of political conflicts.
The statement cited the case of three Navy officers arrested yesterday as an incident which "should not be repeated again".
The statement also called for the military personnel to maintain their political neutrality, avoid political criticism in the public, and refrain from dressing in uniforms if they attend any protest. Violation of these principles would amount to disrespecting the military as a whole and would be punished with disciplinary actions.
If the said violation is accompanied by legal wrongdoing such as possession of firearms or explosive devices, the military would also seek legal prosecution against the wrongdoers, the statement warns.
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