SUSPECTED Rohingya trafficking kingpin Lt-General Manas Khongpaen yesterday turned himself in at the Royal Thai Police headquarters in Bangkok, in a much-awaited surrender under the media microscope.
Dressed in military uniform, the Army's special adviser did not speak to reporters when he showed up at 11.30am. He was briefly questioned by the police before being escorted to board a plane for Songkhla province, and later to Hat Yai Police Station for further questioning.
The questioning was continuing as of press time yesterday evening, and a police source said that it was unlikely that Manas would be released temporarily on bail.
An area police commander based in Songkhla, Pol Maj-General Paween Phongsirin, said later that police would hold Manas in custody for 48 hours initially, as allowed by the law, for further questioning. He said Manas's case would be handled through a civilian court, as many other wrongdoers in human trafficking were civilians.
Manas is the highest ranked military officer to face charges of human trafficking, providing assistance to persons to enter the country illegally and taking hostage for ransom. As a senior military officer, he has the right to have a military staff attorney accompany him while being interrogated.
After the end of the 48-hour period, the officer said that the police would then oppose, through the Na Thawee court based in Songkhla, a possible request by Manas for temporary release.
Police chief General Somyot Poompanmuang said Manas had voluntarily surrendered. He said only further investigations could reveal whether any military officers were involved in the trafficking of Rohingya and other migrants.
Somyot said he had not asked Manas yet about the source of a total of Bt14 million (S$559,140) found transferred to him. The Army would decide on additional disciplinary action against Manas, who has been suspended with his salary withheld, while the police would only be responsible for investigating the case against him.
In a recent television interview, Manas said that the money, whose transactions were documented in bank slips with him showing him as the recipient, was related to bullfighting gambling he was involved in. He denied it was money from the trafficking of Rohingya. The slips were found in the home of a suspect in a raid last month.
Deputy police chief General Aek Angsananont said the police would treat Manas with respect while following basic procedural standards for all suspects. He said Manas had not submitted a possible request for his release.
Meanwhile, another area police commander said that permission had been granted by Malaysian authorities for a temporary passage over the Thai border for exhumation and transport of bodies, thought to be of Rohingya people, found in 91 graves on Malaysian soil.
Pol Maj-General Phutthichart Ekkachant said that Thai police had led a 30-strong team of Malaysian police and forensic personnel to Khao Kaew, to access the 91 graves found on the Malaysian side. He said the Malaysian police would set up a camp on the mount for the two-day work, which began yesterday.
Thai police and reporters were allowed to reach the border at Marker 8D, which is 800 metres away from where the graves were found, in Malaysia's Perlis state.
Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said Manas's alleged wrongdoing was his personal matter and an old issue since holding the rank of colonel. He said he was not aware of Manas being involved in human trafficking and that he was an officer who was good in his military work and had served the country well.
Meanwhile, Surat Thani police chief Maj-General Aphichart Bunsriroj said a small unrest by Rohingya residents at a local shelter had nothing to do with the ongoing crackdown or instigation by any outsiders. A police force deployed earlier to maintain post-unrest order at this facility has been withdrawn and replaced by a few patrolmen, he added.