Thailand's national police chief said a powerful mayor was arrested Friday and that more than 50 police officers were under investigation in the country's widening human-trafficking scandal.
Police chief Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung identified the mayor of Padang Besar in southern Thailand, Banjong Pongphon, as a “key suspect” in the investigation that began one week ago when dozens of bodies were exhumed from a jungle camp in the mountains of his constituency.
In an urgently called meeting of senior police officers from around Thailand, Somyot delivered the strongest admission yet of police involvement in trafficking syndicates that use Thailand as a regional transit hub. Human rights groups have long accused Thai authorities of collusion in the trafficking industry but the claims were routinely denied by police.
“If you are still neglecting, or involved with, or supporting or benefiting from human-trafficking networks — your heads will roll,” Somyot told the meeting at Bangkok's national police headquarters.
Last Friday, the discovery of bodies at a camp run by suspected traffickers in a hillside jungle of Padang Besar, in southern Songlka province, sparked international outrage. Authorities launched searches across southern Thailand that revealed more camps that served as detention centers for migrants, who have said in interviews they were held captive while traffickers extorted money from their families.
Authorities say the area is used to smuggle Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority in neighboring Myanmar, as well as Bangladeshis and other migrants, to third countries including nearby Malaysia, which is predominantly Muslim.
Since then, eight people have been arrested — all local officials and police — for suspected involvement in trafficking. And more than 50 police have been transferred out of their posts, pending an investigation; among them are police from anti-trafficking units as well as border and immigration officers.
“To remove about 50 officers from their posts isn't something I want to do, but it's something I have already warned you about,” Somyot said. "I have warned but you didn't listen. I have warned but you still did it.”
Members of the Rohingya Muslim minority have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist. Mob attacks in the last three years have left hundreds dead and sparked one of the region's biggest exoduses since the Vietnam War