BANGKOK (AFP) - A Thai court has issued an arrest warrant for a high-ranking army officer over human trafficking, police said on Tuesday, making him the first military figure in junta-ruled Thailand to be implicated in the grim trade in migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
More than 3,500 hungry and bedraggled Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority in Myanmar, and Bangladeshi economic migrants, have arrived on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian soil in recent weeks in a regional migration crisis.
Rights groups have long accused officials in junta-ruled Thailand of turning a blind eye to human trafficking, or even complicity in the trade - but until now no army official has been implicated.
A court on Sunday issued an arrest warrant for Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan for his involvement in human trafficking, according to Thai national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung.
"Police are confident in the evidence," Mr Somyot told reporters, adding "I am confident he will not flee."
But Mr Somyot declined to give further details of Lt Gen Manas' alleged role in a multi-million dollar criminal network that has shuttled migrants through Thailand's south to Malaysia for several years.
Lt Gen Manas, who is 58, was a senior army officer in Thailand's south, the focal area of a probe into trafficking which began after dozens of shallow graves were found on May 1 in a remote migrant camp bordering Malaysia.
According to the Royal Thai Army website he was the commander of the upper south province of Chumpon in 2013, before taking a senior position in Songkhla - which borders Malaysia.
He was moved this year to the Royal Thai Army Headquarters in Bangkok to act as an advisor - although it was not immediately clear in what capacity.
The current migrant crisis was sparked by a Thai police crackdown on trafficking after the grave find, which threw the well-worn routes into chaos with smugglers abandoning their human cargo in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal.
An estimated 2,500 migrants are still believed to be stranded at sea.
No protection for wrongdoers
Army Chief Udomdej Sitabutr, who intially ruled out the possible involvement of the military in the scandal on Tuesday suspended Lt Gen Manas.
"The army will not protect any wrongdoers," he said, launching an internal probe into the allegations.
"But in his (Manas') case he still has the chance to defend himself." Yet the arrest warrant raises awkward questions for the military as well as junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who led a coup over a year ago and was succeeded by General Udomdej.
Mr Prayut has repeatedly justified his power grab as the antidote to widespread graft that he says had flourished under a series of elected civilian governments.
Thai police have so far arrested 51 people over the scandal, including senior local officials, with warrants out for 33 others.
In recent months migrants were given cheap or free passage by boat through the Bay of Bengal.
Rights groups say the real money was made in southern Thailand, where brokers held the human cargo in jungle camps or safe houses awaiting release payments of around $2,000 from relatives or friends, or sold them on in bulk to farms and businesses in Malaysia.
Senior police officers have told AFP their investigation is centred on three influential "masterminds" - Ko Tong, Ko Jow and Ko Nui - who allegedly ran a network running across vast tracts of Thailand's south.
All three have been arrested. Little is known about them other than Ko (Big Brother) Tong, who was an influential local politician in Satun province.