BANGKOK – Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has admitted some of his soldiers in the far South are involved in trafficking Rohingya migrants into Thailand before sending them to work in Malaysia.
Gen Prayuth said some members of the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) were linked to smuggling rings and he promised to track them down.
“These bad apples must be punished and got rid of,” he said on Saturday.
His statement came after a police investigation in Songkhla province pointed to some army officers and local politicians allegedly connected with Rohingya trafficking.
A high-ranking police source working on the case told the Bangkok Post that trafficking of Rohingya migrants, mostly from Rakhine state in Myanmar, had been taking place for several years.
The activity and trafficking routes were all in southern areas under the control of certain military officers who hold the rank from major to colonel, said the source.
The officers have connections with Myanmar citizens in Thailand who contact brokers in Myanmar to supply the workers by shipping them to Thailand. Upon arrival in Thailand, the Rohingya migrants are taken in trucks to Songkhla and made to hide themselves in border jungles, waiting to be sent to neighbouring Malaysia.
Military trucks sometimes were used to transport the Rohingya migrants, according to the source.
Isoc spokesman Maj Gen Dithaporn Sasasamit said on Saturday that no information has been received from the police regarding Isoc members’ involvement with the exploitation of the Rohingya.
“Isoc cannot provide any information at this time, pending the investigation,” he said.
Thailand is currently sheltering 949 Rohingya. Most of them are in Songkhla and the rest have been sent to Narathiwat, Trang, Pattani and Phangnga provinces.
On Thursday authorities rounded up 397 Rohingya packed into a makeshift shelter in a rubber plantation at Ban Chaikhuan Thungmaiduan in tambon Padang Besar of Sadao district in Songkhla.
The investigation found that the roundup stemmed from a business conflict among the traffickers. The police suspected some army officers allegedly used to be involved in the trafficking gang.
The rubber plantation belongs to Prasit Lemlae, the former deputy mayor of Padang Besar municipality. He is still at large after facing charges of smuggling 397 illegal immigrants into Thailand and providing them with shelter.
Police have issued arrest warrants for him and a Myanmar national named only as Jamanadin.
In addition to the two, police have already filed smuggling charges against four Myanmar nationals, two Rohingya and two Thais arrested after the Thursday’s raid.
Songkhla Governor Grisada Boonrach has threatened to take disciplinary and legal action against district chiefs and other local officials if any are found taking part in human trafficking. But he said he had not yet found any officials who were part of the scheme.
Thai authorities had planned to deport the migrants them back to Myanmar, where rights activists say they would face severe persecution or worse.
After growing pressure from the United Nations, human rights groups and local Muslims, the government decided to allow the migrants to stay in Thailand temporarily. – Wassana Nanuam and Wassayos Ngamkham