Saturday, March 30, 2013

Thai police continue to dispute cause of refugee camp fire


Saturaday, 30 March 2013 20:53 The Bangkok Post

Several clues indicate that the cause of the fire that killed 37 people at Mae Surin refugee camp was arson, the district police chief insists.

Mae Surin refugee camp after the fire on Friday, March 22, 2013. (PHOTO: TBC)

Khun Yuam district police chief Pol Col Nitinart Wittayawuthikul says he stands by his remarks despite the fact that authorities have unofficially concluded the fire was an accident.

Mae Hong Son police chief Sompong Chingduang, meanwhile, reiterated that Pol Col Nitinart was transferred to an inactive post because he had failed to carry out his duties properly.

Pol Maj Gen Sompong said Pol Col Nitinart was negligent in the way he handled operations to put out the fire.

Pol Col Nitinart was temporarily transferred to an inactive post at Mae Hong Son provincial police office following the disaster.

However, he claimed his transfer was because he refused to conclude the Mae Surin fire on March 22 was an accident.
He insisted his team was among the first to arrive at the camp that evening.

In an interview with the Bangkok Post, he said there were several clues which indicated the fire might have been started intentionally.

He said more than 10 Karen refugees gave statements to his team that they had seen a burning object fall from an aircraft flying over the camp a few minutes before the fire was discovered.

How the fire spread was unusual, he said. It began in a house in Zone 1 of the camp and spread to Zone 4, rather than Zone 2.

Joa Pa Hu, 26, the owner of the house where it is thought the fire started, told police he was not at home when the blaze began.

Eyewitnesses told police they had seen fires flaring up from different points at the same time, and that there was no wind at the time, Pol Col Nitinart said.

He said the fire seemed to have been set to "encircle" the camp.

The colour of the smoke was also suspicious, he said.

"The smoke appeared dark, such as what you see with the burning of chemical substances or rubber tyres," the officer said.

"Smoke from a burning house mostly made from natural materials such as bamboo and leaves should be more white."
Liquid phosphorus might have been used to spark the fire, he said.

A source from the police forensics team said traces of phosphorus had been found in the grounds of the house where the blaze was believed to have started.

The motive, if the fire was deliberate, could have been the high cost of maintaining the camp, Pol Col Nitinart said.

"Some people have told me to shut my mouth," he claimed. "But I can't. Those refugees have spilt blood and lost lives. So I have to tell the truth."

A military source in Mae Hong Son told the Bangkok Post that the cause of the fire was unlikely to have been a cooking mishap, as authorities claim. However, he could not rule it out.

A police source said the investigation is mainly being conducted by officers from outside Khun Yuam district.
This article was first published in The Bangkok Post on March 30, 2013.
For more background:

  1. Mae Surin fire was accident, says Thai security chief
  2. Refugee camp fire not an accident, says police chief
  3. Refugee camp death toll rises to 42

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