Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Refugee camp fire not an accident, says police chief

Wednesday, 27 March 2013 16:31 THE BANGKOK POST

The fire that ravaged Mae Surin refugee camp [in Thailand] on Friday was not an accident, embattled Khun Yuam district police chief Pol Col Nitinart Wittayawuthikul claimed Tuesday.

Thai officials examine the aftermath of the fire at Mae Surin refugee camp on Friday, Mar 22, 2013. (PHOTO: TBC)

The district police chief was transferred, pending an investigation, to an inactive post at Mae Hong Son provincial police office on Monday for alleged negligence in his handling of Friday's disaster in Mae Hong Song's Khun Yuam district. He was also removed from the blaze investigation team.

However, Pol Col Nitinart says he is being punished because he refuses to confirm the deadly fire was an accident.
Friday's fire killed 37 Karen and Karenni refugees, injured over 100 and left more than 2,300 homeless. The camp is home to about 3,000 people.

Authorities have so far been unable to determine the cause of the blaze.

Police initially suspected that the fire started in a kitchen. Another theory is that embers from a nearby forest fire blown by the wind could have landed on the thatched roof of a refugee house.

Pol Col Nitinart Tuesday said he had spoken to witnesses before he was removed from the case and said their accounts led him to believe the fire started inside the camp and was not an accident. He stopped short of saying what he believed caused the fire.

"I have extensively questioned the witnesses and I don't think the fire was an accident," Pol Col Nitinart said.

The transfer order was signed by Mae Hong Son police chief Sompong Chingduang, citing Pol Col Nitinart's alleged dereliction of duty when the fire broke out. But Pol Col Nitinart believes the real reason behind the transfer was because he refused to conclude that the fire was an accident.

"Based on my interrogations and fire scene investigations, I could not come to such a conclusion [that the fire was an accident]," Pol Col Nitinart told the Bangkok Post. "Talk to anyone at the camp, ask them what they saw, and you will know how the fire started," he said.

A police investigation source who questioned Mae Surin refugees said several witnesses claimed they saw a helicopter flying above the camp minutes before the fire broke out.

They also reported seeing a burning object dropped from the helicopter on to the roof of a house in Zone 1.

A source from the Office of Aviation for Natural Resource Conservation said none of the office's helicopters had flown above the camp that day. However, he could not confirm if anyone else had flown helicopters over the site.

Meanwhile, Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department director-general Chatchai Promlert said he was working with the Provincial Administration Department to design fire prevention measures at refugee camps.

Regular fire drills will be held at nine camps in four provinces to prevent a recurrence of Friday's deadly inferno.

The department is responsible for nine refugee camps in Mae Hong Son, Tak, Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi provinces.

The measures include regular fire drills, the installation of firefighting equipment, and teaching residents how to prevent and control fires.

Mr Chatchai said the department was working with other agencies to provide food, water, shelter and health care services to refugees affected by the blaze.

National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission secretary-general Thakorn Tanthasit said his agency had sought cooperation from mobile phone operators to send vehicles to areas near the Mae Surin camp.

Thaicom Plc has sent several vehicles to provide phone and internet services in the area, Mr Thakorn said.

Public Health Minister Pradit Sintawanarong, meanwhile, said he had asked health officials to monitor the refugees as some survivors are suffering from psychological trauma and depression.

The officials would also step up measures to prevent the spread of diseases.

Khun Yuam district chief Charnchai Srisathian said many refugees were in dire need of shoes, underwear, powdered milk, soap and toothpaste. He urged the public to donate those items at Mae Hong Son provincial hall or district offices and Red Cross offices nationwide.

This article was first published in The Bangkok Post on March 27, 2013.
For more background:
  1. Police chief transferred after refugee camp blaze
  2. Private donations needed after refugee camp blaze
  3. Refugee camp death toll rises to 42

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