ABOVE: Housekeepers told police that Patchuban Angchotipan, suspected of being the kingpin behind a massive human trafficking operation in the south of Thailand, fled days before they showed up at his home. Photo: Thai PBS
A manhunt intensified today for the alleged kingpin of a Thai people-smuggling network, police said, as detectives probe whether a private island near the Malaysia sea border was a key link in a trafficking chain spanning several countries.
Thai police believe Patchuban Angchotipan, a-one time senior provincial official known locally as Ko Tong, 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 nearby on the 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.
“Ko Tong is a mastermind of the trafficking gang in Satun province (bordering Malaysia), but I can’t disclose all of the details,” Maj. Gen. 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 on Tuesday 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.
The kingdom’s top cop is meeting his Malaysian counterpart in Phuket later Wednesday.
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’,” he said, adding he 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.
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