Satun, known for its stunning cluster of islands in the Andaman Sea, has been used by human smugglers as a way station en route to Malaysia.
Cainan Lungsamah, a local official in southern Satun province, shifts uneasily in his seat.
One of Satun’s most influential businessmen and former top elected provincial administrative official, Pajjuban Angchotephan, has just surrendered to the police, after being identified as the alleged kingpin of a human trafficking network.
Days before, a boatload of some 300 desperate migrants abandoned by human smugglers were kept away from Thai waters off Satun, after getting fresh provisions and engine repairs.
“I don’t feel good that this is happening in my neighborhood,” says Cainan.
But he insists he had no inkling of the problem prior to Thailand’s recent crackdown.
These are uncertain times for Satun.
The Muslim-dominated coastal province, which borders Malaysia’s Perlis state, is better known for its rich fishing grounds and a stunning cluster of islands in the Andaman Sea that draw holidaymakers from all over the world.
But there is a darker side to this paradise.
It has been used by human smugglers as a way station en route to Malaysia.
Two years ago, an investigation by British broadcaster Channel 4 found makeshift prisons for trafficked migrants in the jungles of Tarutao islands, a national park off mainland Satun.
They were unloaded from boats that had sailed down from Bangladesh and beaten until their relatives paid the sum demanded by the traffickers.
Now, amid a widening crackdown on human trafficking that has resulted in more than 40 arrests, officials are wary they could be summoned next to explain the illicit business in their backyard.
Pajjuban, who is known locally as Ko Tong, has been charged with human trafficking but insists he is innocent. Two of his relatives have also been detained.
Satun governor Dejrat Simsiri tells the Sunday Times: “He had close relations with senior politicians and was so powerful, it was hard to deal with him.”
The recent removal of several policemen made it easier to deal with Pajjuban, says Dejrat. But locals remain cautious.
Kraiwuthi Chusakul, 46, a tour boat operator, says: “Some networks are so big and so powerful that it’s not easy for us to comment.”
Even Pajjuban’s distant cousin, a 47-year-old woman who declines to be named, speaks in hushed tones while she maintains his innocence.
“He was a kind person,” she says, glancing nervously around the almost empty cafe. “He would be aggressive to those who cheated, but he was not a gangster.”
By Tan Hui Yee
(The Straits Times)