BANGKOK - The police general who led Thailand's probe into human trafficking said Thursday he was seeking political asylum in Australia, after fleeing the kingdom fearing for his life for implicating senior officials in the grim trade.
Thailand has long been a major hub for human trafficking and people smuggling, with rights groups accusing officials of turning a blind eye to the multi-million dollar trade - and even complicity in it.
Major General Paween Pongsirin headed a police investigation into trafficking after dozens of shallow graves were uncovered on the Thai-Malaysia border.
They were the sites of trafficking camps where victims - mainly from Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority and Bangladesh - were held in appalling conditions, many awaiting ransom payments from relatives for their release.
"I am asking for asylum because living in (Thailand) at this time is very dangerous," Paween told AFP Thursday.
He added he was seeking asylum in Australia "because I have friends and people who assist me there".
Paween declined to tell AFP where he was, but said he was no longer in Thailand. Australian media have reported he was in Melbourne.
The kingdom's pivotal role in the trade emerged in May as people-smugglers abandoned thousands of migrants at sea or in jungle camps after a Thai crackdown.
Thai officials are accused of orchestrating smuggling routes through the south of their country to neighbouring Malaysia, raking in huge sums of money over several years.
Dozens of people, including a powerful Thai army general in the south, Manas Kongpan, and other local officials appeared in court last month charged with trafficking.
Manas is accused of being a linchpin, using his local influence to funnel migrants through the south, though he denies the charges.
His alleged involvement is hugely embarrassing to the Thai junta, which seized power last year declaring themselves as the only institution capable of running a graft-free country.
The junta trumpeted the arrests as proof that the kingdom will no longer tolerate the trade and pursue complicit officials no matter how powerful they are.
But Paween said the investigation was pulled too soon.
Speaking to AFP before he left the country, a visibly shaken Paween said he was ordered to stop the investigation prematurely and that many more officials were likely involved in the trade.
Paween's unit was disbanded and he was transferred to Thailand's insurgency-hit three southernmost provinces, and the probe was declared complete in early October.
He resigned from the police rather than take up a new post, after allegedly receiving death threats.
"No one can protect me now. There is no sympathy, or mercy, for me from my bosses," he said.
Thailand has long been a hub for the trafficking of persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, who in recent years have been joined by Bangladeshi economic migrants.