Police yesterday obtained a warrant for the arrest of an influential Army major-general accused of running or benefiting from trafficking in Rohingya and other migrants in the South.
In a police document submitted to a court in Songkhla, Maj-General Manas Khongpaen has been accused of various crimes, including slavery of humans aged under 15 at a number of locations, including seven in the South and in Bangladesh and Myanmar, between November 2102 and May this year.
The Na Thawee provincial court approved the arrest warrant.
The written request was submitted by Pol Maj-General Paween Phongsirin, an area commander responsible for provinces in the upper South and the police investigation into the entire human trafficking racket.
Speaking before news of the police request for Manas's warrant broke, Army spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvari said the Army was willing and ready to co-operate with police in the arrest of any Army officer accused of human smuggling.
He said police could immediately contact Army units where the accused officers were attached, and that more details about a potential arrest warrant for a high-ranking Army officer would be known today.
Manas, 58, was serving the Army as an adviser in several prominent positions in the South including the chief of the Chumphon military area, and the chief of 42nd Army district in Songkhla.
A key piece of evidence implicating him in human trafficking surfaced during the raid of the home of a key suspect last month in which bank transaction slips showing Manas as the recipient of a large amount of money were allegedly found.
To date, Manas is the most senior military officer still serving implicated in the human trafficking syndicates.
Previously, the junta and the government continually denied reports that security officers were linked to the trafficking and trading in modern-day slavery.
The junta launched a crackdown on human trafficking syndicates after the country was relegated by the United States to Tier 3, the lowest level, in its Trafficking in Persons report last year.
'Ko Mik' due back from Myanmar
The crackdown resulted in the discovery of a mass grave in the southern border province of Songkhla in late April, while an influx of boat people on the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea continued.
There are now 51 suspects in custody, through either arrest or surrender, out of 84 people wanted under arrest warrants, said deputy national police chief General Aek Angsananont.
He said arrested key suspect Nathaphat Saengthong, or Ko Mik, would soon be returned to Thailand after he was arrested by Myanmar authorities in Yangon last week.
Aek repeated the police's self-imposed deadline on completing an investigation report into human trafficking by mid-June.
Meanwhile, the Royal Thai Navy has readied equipment and vessels to carry out an operation - code named Operation Centre for Patrol and Humanitarian Assistance to Irregular Migrants in the Indian Ocean - to rescue and help out Rohingya and other migrants stranded off Thailand's Andaman coast.
It is estimated that a few thousand boat people are still at sea waiting for a chance to land somewhere in Malaysia or Indonesia, or use Thailand as a transit point to Malaysia.
The amphibious land ship HTMS Ang Thong is the command ship for the seven Navy vessels responding to the crisis and has 360 three-tier bunks and 400 beds, said its skipper, Commander Ratthaphol Panin.
The ship also has six medical beds, an operating theatre, a dental care room and a kitchen that serves 400 people in a mess hall. It can store raw ingredients in refrigerated rooms for a week.
HTMS Ang Thong has 154 crew, two amphibious vehicles that can each transport 150 people and two transport crafts that can each transport 36 people, as well as a platform that can house two helicopters, the skipper said.
The government has allowed the US to fly over Thai sovereign waters for maritime surveillance missions since last week after a request from Washington to help inspect the movement of boat people who might be stranded at sea.
The US Navy flights take off from Malaysia's Subang base, while the government is considering a request to use a base in U-Tapao or Phuket for the operation.