BANGKOK (AFP) - Thai police have stepped up a manhunt for the alleged kingpin of a Thai people smuggling network, as detectives probe whether a private island near the Malaysia sea border was a key link in a trafficking chain spanning several countries.
Police believe Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, a one-time senior provincial official known locally as Ko Tong (Big Brother), has fled the kingdom since a warrant for his arrest was issued on Saturday.
The probe is examining whether Ko Tong used the small island near the Malaysian sea border as a base to mastermind a trafficking network which has unravelled since May 1 when dozens of migrants' graves were found on the nearby Thai mainland.
A police crackdown following the grim discovery appears to have forced smuggling gangs to flee, abandoning hundreds of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh in a network of Thai jungle camps near the Malaysia border.
Around 2,000 more have been found on boats in Malaysian and Indonesian waters or have swum to shore in recent days, with fears that thousands of others remain at sea without food and water.
"Ko Tong is a mastermind of the trafficking gang in Satun province (bordering Malaysia), but I can't disclose all of the details," Major General Paveen Pongsirin, a deputy regional commander in the Thai south, told AFP.
"He has a lot of assets - tens of millions of baht in assets have been seized. He is a very prominent figure," he said.
Rights groups and observers have long accused Thai officials, including the police and military, of turning a blind eye to human trafficking - and even being complicit in the grim trade.
Police have arrested 18 people over the scandal, including senior local officials, with warrants out for 32 more.
However no law enforcement or military figures have been arrested yet. Instead, more than 50 police officers, including senior officials, have been "transferred" from their posts for failing to act against the trade.
- An 'influential person' -
Thailand's police chief said Ko Tong had fled to a "neighbouring country", while local media reports said he was believed to be on the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi.
Ko Tong owned a large chunk of land on Rat Yai, a small island just off the coast of Satun, which borders Malaysia, according to the province's governor.
"He used to be chairman of Satun Provincial Administration but recently lost elections," Dejrath Simsiri told AFP.
"He is an 'influential person'," Dejrath said, adding that Ko Tong is also known to have ties to local officials in nearby Padang Besar - the district where the migrant graves were found in a remote hillside.
Locals in Satun told AFP the Rat Yai was renowned for being off limits.
"If any boats came near the island speedboats would come and tell them to leave," a local resident said, requesting anonymity.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have braved the dangerous sea crossing to southern Thailand from Myanmar in recent years, with many headed for Malaysia and beyond.