23 May 2024

More than six years after he fled Thailand to live in exile in Australia, Pol Maj-General Paween Pongsirin is back under the media spotlight.

His role as chief investigator of a high-profile human smuggling case in 2015 was highlighted when opposition MP Rangsiman Rome from the opposition Move Forward Party criticized the Thai government for its poor performance in the latest Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the US State Department last June.

The report downgraded Thailand to Tier 2 Watch List, saying the government “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so”.

After grilling the government during a general debate on Friday (Feb18), Rangsiman interviewed Paween in an online meeting broadcast live on his party’s Facebook page the following day.

Paween’s words during the interview made headlines in the Thai media.

High-profile case

As a former deputy commissioner of the 8th Provincial Police Bureau, Paween led an investigation into the May 2015 discovery of more than 30 shallow graves at an abandoned jungle camp in Songkhla province near the Malaysian border. Most of the exhumed bodies were believed to be Rohingya Muslims trafficked from Myanmar and heading for Malaysia.

The investigation led to the arrests of Lt-General Manas Kongpan, an Army commander in charge of security in the southern border region, and more than 100 local politicians, businesspeople, policemen, and military officers for alleged involvement in human trafficking.

Of the 103 defendants, 62 were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to 94 years. Manas was handed a combined jail term of 70 years for multiple offenses but died of a heart attack in prison in June last year.

Story of Thai policeman in exile and victims of human trafficking revealed in parliament

‘Big fish spared’

Paween, 63, said during Saturday’s online meeting that “much more big fish would have been caught” and brought to justice if his investigation had been allowed to continue.

“If Thailand had had a true democracy like others at that time and the justice process had been allowed to run its course, I am confident that the investigation [that he led] would have caught several more big fish,” he said.

Paween claimed that persecution by figures in the Royal Thai Police, the Thai government, and powers-that-be at the time forced him to seek asylum in Australia, where he has lived in difficulties for more than six years now.

He quit the police force in November 2015 — three years before his mandatory retirement at 60 — after his plea for a review of his transfer to the southern border region was rejected. He said the transfer would have put him at risk of retribution as the area was under the influence of the human-trafficking ring involved.

Painful irony

A month later, while in Australia on a tourist visa seeking political asylum, the senior policeman told local media: “Influential people are involved in human trafficking. There are some bad police and bad military [officers] who do this kind of thing. Unfortunately, those bad police and bad military are the ones that have power.”

Paween told Australian media that he was “deeply saddened” at being forced out of his homeland and being unable to continue his work. He said it was an irony that someone trying to help refugees ended up becoming an asylum seeker himself.

A native of Samut Sakhon province, Paween graduated from the Royal Police Cadet Academy. Among his classmates was former deputy national police chief Pol General Srivara Rangsibrahmanakul.

Paween was named the Royal Thai Police’s best investigator for three consecutive years. He worked on high-profile cases including the 1997 massacre of five family members in Songkhla, Phuket’s taxi mafia, the murder of a Swedish tourist in Phuket, and irregularities in a multibillion-baht project to construct 396 police stations and residential buildings for police families across the country.

He served as the provincial chief of Surat Thani police before being appointed deputy commissioner of the 8th Provincial Police Bureau in 2011.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk