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Thai General Denies Human Trafficking Involvement

Thai Army Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan, center, is surrounded by police officers as he turns himself in at the police headquarters in Bangkok, June 3, 2015.
Thai Army Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan, center, is surrounded by police officers as he turns himself in at the police headquarters in Bangkok, June 3, 2015.

A senior Thai military officer denied accusations he was involved in a massive human trafficking ring that helped create a desperate migrant crisis in Southeast Asia.

Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan turned himself in to police Wednesday in Bangkok. He made no statement, but officials later said he planned to fight the charges.

"He only confirmed that he was not involved (in human trafficking). So he denies (the charges), but the investigators will work on the details," said Thai National Police Chief Somyot Poompanmoung.

The three-star army general is the highest ranking official to be implicated during the Thai government's crackdown on the vast people-smuggling network.

Officials allegedly involved

The Thai government has arrested dozens of local officials allegedly involved in the criminal syndicate, which trafficked migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh through Thailand's southern provinces.

The crackdown forced many of the people smugglers to abandon their victims, leaving thousands of migrants stranded at sea, with little or no food and supplies.

More than 700 so-called boat people disembarked Wednesday in Myanmar's Rakhine state, days after their overcrowded fishing boat was rescued by the country's navy.

Myanmar authorities said those on the boat are being brought to an immigration center, where their nationalities will be determined and their claims assessed.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has drawn harsh international criticism for its treatment of the Rohingya, which make up a majority of the boat people.

"The Rohingya need to be treated as citizens of Burma," U.S. Secretary of State Anne Richard said on Wednesday. Richard also said Washington would like to see "all Burmese leaders," including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, speak up on the Rohingya issue.

Suu Kyi has been silent over the plight of the mostly Muslim Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and other basic rights in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

Discrimination blamed for exodus

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama said part of the reason the Rohingya are fleeing is because they are being "discriminated against significantly" in Myanmar.

Myanmar leaders refuse to recognize the minority group. They instead consider most members of the group as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, which also does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens.

Following weeks of international pressure, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed last week to shelter 7,000 of the migrants, provided they are resettled with the help of the international community within a year.

Richard said there has been a "real shift" in the region from earlier last month, when Southeast Asian governments refused to allow migrant boats to land on their shores.

The U.S. has been working with regional governments to help locate the thousands of migrants who are believed to still be stranded in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal.