By Michael Ruffles
Paween Pongsirin, a former police major general in Thailand who fled to Australia.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui
The sun starts to fade over the suburban Melbourne skyline as Paween Pongsirin gathers the documents of the case that changed his life forever. Over several hours, the decorated former Thai policeman has explained how he came to live in exile, chased from family and friends for daring to prosecute powerful men.
As a police major general, Paween spearheaded Thailand’s largest human-trafficking prosecution in 2015, arresting nearly 100 suspects and gathering evidence that put the ringleaders away for decades. But five months in, he was transferred off the case, subject to pressure from figures in the military government, police force and the royal palace.
Paween Pongsirin has made a new life for himself in Melbourne.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui
He fled in November that year, and six years after being granted asylum in Australia he has overcome fears for his family’s safety and is speaking out. His claims have shocked a country reeling from two years of anti-government protests, made for uncomfortable debates in the Thai parliament and come as the military-controlled government faces an election early next year.
Those he accuses deny everything, and Paween is disappointed many of those involved remain in positions of power, but he is adamant.
He lays out his case with the methodical detail of a 33-year police veteran, and it is only when he is asked how hard it is to be an honest policeman in Thailand that his expression slips.
“I could look after other people, but I couldn’t look after my family,” he says, wiping tears. “I feel that my family has sacrificed a lot. They let me follow my dream. I wanted to help people. I wanted to be a good policeman. But it’s been very hard, it’s been very tough. Nobody understands why I do what I’m doing. The more I try, the more enemies I make.”
Trafficking members of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority has been lucrative for decades. For the Thai network which profited from their suffering, business flourished between 2004 and 2015, particularly after the 2012 riots in Myanmar’s Rakhine state displaced hundreds of thousands of people, mainly Rohingya Muslims. The Myanmar military persecuted the Rohingya and also profited by luring them into a multinational trafficking network that offered them refuge elsewhere in South-East Asia and demanded payment at each step.
An unknown number of people were smuggled across the Andaman Sea from Myanmar to Malaysia, via camps in Thailand where they would be tortured, deprived of food and extorted for money before being sent south. Many died along the way. The military ran the Thai part of the operation: if the police accidentally intercepted the refugees en route, soldiers would spring them from custody and send them to the camps.
One journalist investigating the network estimates the number of victims trafficked through Thailand swelled to about 80,000 in 2014. Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch believes the true toll of death and deprivation is “lost to history”.
For much of that time, the soldier tasked with overseeing Thailand’s response to the Rohingya refugee crisis was being paid by human traffickers.
Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan, left, in custody in 2016.Credit:AP
Manas Kongpan, an imposing figure whose career included leading a massacre on a mosque that left 32 dead, was appointed in 2008 and oversaw the trafficking network. After a coup in 2014, the lieutenant general was appointed an adviser to the military government.
The network began to unravel on May 1, 2015, when mass graves were found in Songkhla province near the Malaysian border. In all, 36 bodies were discovered but the mountains were never thoroughly searched.
Paween, whose rank was equivalent to an assistant commissioner in Australia, was called in a few days later from a different region to help lead the investigation.
“I wasn’t part of the investigation from the beginning when they went up on the mountain, but from what I heard from people going up, the Rohingya camp where they were held was like a pigsty, like for animals,” Paween said. “There was room for hundreds of people to stay, and there were so many graves there, they dug up dozens of corpses. But I also heard that it’s the same story on the other side in Malaysia, so there could be a lot more.”
He spoke to a senior officer overseeing the recovery effort who admitted they were not going to search properly. “I don’t see what’s the point of digging them up,” Paween was told. “We can’t prove who they are. This is enough for the case file.”
The early chaos of the operation soon gave way to obstruction. Evidence Paween asked for took weeks to arrive, and he later discovered other officers had been ordered to withhold information from him.
A forensic police officer inspects a camp used by human traffickers near the Thai-Malaysian border, where mass graves were found in May 2015.Credit:AP
A whistleblower from the trafficking network was a vital source of intelligence and helped identify more than 100 suspects. However, the most crucial documents, transfer slips showing payments from traffickers into Manas’ bank account, only became known to Paween after reporters tipped him off about a leak on social media. Employing some subterfuge, Paween obtained the evidence from his colleagues and used it to secure an arrest warrant.
The arrest on June 3, 2015, was a sensation. When Manas turned himself in, he did so in Bangkok in full uniform in front of the media, and top-level police received him in a reception room.
“The police also arranged a special flight, using a plane belonging to the Royal Thai Police, flying him down south,” Paween said. “There was very nice food, according to others on the flight. It looked like a first-class flight.”
When Paween arrived at Hat Yai Police Station in the morning to see his suspect, he was surprised to see armoured personnel carriers outside and soldiers everywhere.
“It didn’t look like a police station any more, it looked like a barracks.”
Migrants on a boat tethered to a Thai navy vessel in waters near Koh Lipe island in May 2015. Credit:Reuters
For a time, Manas had friends in high places. The deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, was among those who vouched publicly for him. As a former army chief and one of Manas’ superior officers, Prawit has also been accused of lobbying behind the scenes on the human trafficker’s behalf.
Paween said he received a call from a well-connected policeman, phoning at Prawit’s behest, urging him to free Manas on bail. Paween said he was shocked but replied that it was impossible as it would undermine the case.
“It also goes to the credibility of the investigative team, if we allow one suspect to get bail and not the others, what does it say about us?” Paween said.
Asked about the claims this year, Prawit denied interfering in the case. He said he would welcome any evidence Paween had, but dismissed accusations of wanting Manas to be freed as false. “It’s the court’s business, not my business,” he told Thai reporters. “I had nothing to do with it.”
Even among Paween’s allies, arresting Manas was not universally welcomed. “Why are you making my life difficult?” his immediate superior complained at the time.
In five months on the case, Paween and his team identified 153 suspects (two of whom died) and made 91 arrests. It became Thailand’s largest and highest-profile human trafficking case, and hefty jail sentences were handed down. Manas was jailed for 82 years; he died in prison in June 2021 of a heart attack.
Paween was only allowed to go so far. In November 2015, he was taken off the case. Robertson said, as a result, “the big fish got away, with the exception of Manas Kongpan”.
“It’s very clear and very important to understand that the presiding theme to this has been impunity,” he said. “Impunity writ large is the real story of this whole saga. Senior people were making a lot of money from the monstrous abuse of people.”
When the Move Forward Party raised the case in the Thai parliament earlier this year, top government leaders including Prawit were absent. Paween’s case was raised again during a censure debate in July, to no avail.
Prawit and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had oversight of Manas for years when they ran the army, and it was “not credible” for them to claim ignorance of his activities, Robertson said.
“When Paween was transferred off the case, this was a signal to ‘wrap it up, boys’.”
At the end of the strangest week in his life, Paween found himself alone in the boss’s office.
His case was causing political headaches. The national police chief, Chakthip Chaijinda, was six weeks into the job when he called him in.
Chakthip had others to see, including Brahmin monks with whom he spent about half an hour in a “voodoo” ceremony. Paween, who was left to watch through a CCTV screen, wondered how the boss worked without any books in the room, counted the religious icons and contemplated the hours wasted on superstition at taxpayer expense. He also spied a statue of a tiger, and remembered how he’d heard Chakthip was fond of comparing himself to the fierce animal: “I can find food for myself”. Word was, he fed himself through underground casinos.
When Chakthip entered the room, it wasn’t for an innocent chat. Paween had been in deep discussions about his career. An order signed by Prawit, the deputy prime minister in charge of national security, at the start of the week transferring him to the volatile southern border provinces left him fearing for his safety.
Paween had spoken to top brass in the police, army and Thailand’s rich and powerful royal palace about his options, in between court appearances. He had gone so far as to fax an application form to the palace, but in his heart he wanted to finish his case.
Chakthip made it clear: his options had run out.
“He dragged his chair to sit next to me,” Paween recalls. “He told me, ‘You and I have nothing between us, but you need to resign’.”
Chakthip Chaijinda, Thailand’s police commissioner-general from 2015 to 2020, remains active in political circles.Credit:Getty
Chakthip called a top official at the palace, police general Jumpol Manmai, who had been involved in the discussions. After the phone was handed over, Jumpol was gruff and told him to quit the force and live quietly.
Chakthip has called Paween’s motives into question, saying he was disappointed to be overlooked for promotion and was hurting the organisation for personal reasons. “I want him to tell all the truth, who are the bad police, who are the bad soldiers?” Chakthip told Thai media.
Since retirement Chakthip has been involved in Prawit’s political party; both their faces were this year plastered on election-style placards in the country’s north-east.
Jumpol was sacked from the palace in 2017 over unspecified “extremely evil” conduct and jailed for three years; he has not been heard from since.
After that Friday afternoon meeting, Paween says others who had promised help failed to answer their phones when he called and did not reply to text messages. A trusted source told him to leave as he had a target on his back.
The next Monday he was on a flight to Singapore, fleeing Thailand in fear. Within weeks he was bound for Melbourne, where he has since started a new life away from family and everyone he once knew.
In the years since, he has volunteered as a cleaner at a hospital, and worked at a nursery, factory and other simple jobs but is grateful to the government and those who have helped him learn English and adjust. He speaks to his father regularly, and his dearest wish is to be reunited with his daughters.
But every day, his mind turns to his final case and those who were determined to thwart it.
“I felt like I was drowning and there was a piece of wood floating towards me,” Paween says now of his dealings with palace officials. “But it was a crocodile.”
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