Thai people smuggling 'kingpin' hands himself in: police

Thai people smuggling 'kingpin' hands himself in: police

Bangkok (AFP) - A former Thai regional official accused of being a major people trafficking kingpin turned himself in on Monday, police said, as the kingdom continues a belated blitz against the lucrative trade.

Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, better known as Ko Tong (Big Brother Tong), had been sought by police for the last week on human trafficking charges.

"He surrendered to police this morning in Bangkok," national police spokesman Lieutenant General Prawut Thavornsiri told AFP.

"Police are now taking him to the south for questioning and more investigation," he added.

Thailand began a crackdown on human trafficking and smuggling following the discovery of a network of secret jungle camps in the south and dozens of shallow graves thought to contain the remains of Myanmar Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants.

Thousands of migrants were subsequently abandoned by smuggling gangs, some in remote jungles but many more on rickety boats in the Andaman Sea.

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.

Ko Tong was until recently an influential official in Thailand's southern province of Satun, a region long known to be a major transit point for people smugglers and traffickers.

Thai police had previously suggested he might have fled to Malaysia, but Prawut said there was no evidence he had left the country.

Television showed pictures of Ko Tong, balding and dressed in a white t-shirt, appearing at a brief press conference flanked by police officers, some of whom were armed.

It is common in Thailand for accused criminals to be presented to the media once they are charged.

Local media reported that he denied all the charges against him and said he would only testify in court.

Regional police official Major General Puthichart Ekachant told AFP that 65 arrest warrants have now been issued against people suspected of involvement in people trafficking or smuggling.

So far 31 have been arrested or surrendered, including Ko Tong, he added.

More than 50 police have been transferred from their positions for failing to stop the trade. No military officials have been caught up in the current crackdown.

If convicted, Ko Tong faces between four to 15 years in jail and a fine up to one million baht ($30,000).