SYDNEY — Thailand’s highest-ranking police investigator in charge of human trafficking has fled to Australia, telling Australian media on Thursday that he feared for his life after his findings implicated “influential people” at home who want to silence him.
Police Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and the Guardian Australia newspaper that he was too afraid to return to Thailand and planned to seek political asylum in Australia. A photograph showed him standing on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne, where he said he had arrived a few days ago.
It was the first sighting of Paween in weeks, following unconfirmed reports in Thai media that he had fled. His Thai mobile phones were switched off and he could not be reached for comment.
Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection said it is unable to comment on individual asylum cases for privacy reasons. It said in a statement that “All claims for protection are assessed on their individual merits in accordance with Australia’s domestic legislation and obligations under international treaties and the Refugees Convention.”
Paween headed a high-profile task force created earlier this year after the discovery of 36 bodies and shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand in May. The finding exposed a network of jungle camps run by traffickers, who human rights groups have long said worked in complicity with corrupt Thai officials, a claim authorities in Bangkok had routinely denied.
Thailand vowed a crackdown and put Paween in charge. Dozens of people were arrested, including local politicians in southern Thailand, government officials, police and a senior army officer.
Paween told The Guardian that he faced pressure not to pursue the perpetrators too enthusiastically.
His investigation was disbanded in September after five months, although it was far from finished, he said.
Soon after, he was abruptly transferred to an insurgency-plagued region of southern Thailand despite his protests that he would be targeted by traffickers and senior police involved in the trade. He quit his job and fled, he said.
Asked who halted the probe, Paween said, “Influential people involved in human trafficking.”
He did not name anyone, but added: “Human trafficking is a big network that involves lots of the military, politicians and police. While I was supervising the cases, I was warned all along.”
Paween’s comments are bound to embarrass Thailand’s military government, which has promised to rid the country of traffickers and corruption.
The US State Department in July said it was keeping Thailand on its human trafficking blacklist, and retained Thailand’s Tier 3 ranking, the lowest level in its annual Trafficking in Persons report. The ranking designates Thailand as a country that has not made sufficient progress in tackling human trafficking.