SONGKHLA – Thai Authorities have found 30 unmarked graves believed to belong to migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh in southern Thailand, National police Chief General Somyot Poompanmoung says.
The grave site was found in the Sadao district of Songkhla Province at an abandoned camp for “boat people” who had apparently been trafficked to Thailand’s border area with Malaysia.
“There are 32 graves, four bodies have now been exhumed and are on their way … to hospital to for an autopsy,” rescue worker Sathit Thamsuwan said. He was at the scene soon after the site was found.
“The bodies were all decayed.”
He added a single man from Bangladesh survived and was being treated at a hospital in nearby Padang Besar.
The local hospital confirmed the Bangladeshi man had survived and was in a stable condition.
National Police Chief General Somyot Poompanmoung described the site as a virtual “prison camp” where migrants were held in makeshift bamboo cells.
“There are 32 places that look like graves and whether there is one body or several bodies in those graves, we will we have to wait and see,” he said.
He said the smugglers were believed to have abandoned the sick man when they moved Rohingya migrants across the border into Malaysia two days ago.
Local media said the camp and its lone survivor were stumbled upon by villagers looking for mushrooms.
The grisly discovery of the grave was also confirmed by a senior official from Sadao.
“Military and border patrol police have now cordoned the area off so we can bring forensic officials to the site,” he said, requesting anonymity.
Those dead were believed to have starved to death or died of disease while awaiting ransom payments to be made so they could be smuggled into Malaysia, local media reported.
The area the graves were found in is notorious for housing remote camps for trafficked migrants.
Tens of thousands of migrants from Myanmar — mainly from the Rohingya Muslim minority — and increasingly from Bangladesh make the dangerous sea crossing to southern Thailand, a well worn trafficking route often on the way south to Malaysia and beyond.
Thousands of Rohingya — described by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities — have fled deadly communal unrest in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state since 2012.
Thailand has been criticized in the past for pushing boatloads of Rohingya entering Thai waters back out to sea and for holding migrants in overcrowded facilities.
The ruling junta says it has taken significant steps to combat trafficking since June, when the United States dumped Thailand to the bottom of its list of countries accused of failing to tackle modern-day slavery.
In January, Thai authorities confirmed more than a dozen government officials — including senior policemen and a navy officer — were being prosecuted for involvement or complicity in human trafficking.
Fears for thousands at sea
Chris Lewa, from the Arakan Project, which monitors the smuggling routes, said survivors of jungle camps often described horrific conditions as they waited for relatives to pay ransoms.
“If police find a camp and start digging you can bet they will find graves,” she said.
The junta’s crackdown forced many Thai smugglers into hiding, reducing the numbers held in jungle camps in recent months.
But smugglers have simply switched tactics, she said, keeping desperate migrants in rickety boats at sea for endless weeks.
“We fear there may be thousands stuck at sea because they can’t disembark. The camps have effectively been transferred from the jungle to international waters,” she said.
Two weeks ago she interviewed a 15-year-old boy who had made it to Malaysia.
Rather than hold him in a Thai jungle camp, he was kept for six weeks on a boat, awaiting payment from his relatives.
“During his time at sea he said he saw at least 30 people die. They were thrown overboard,” she said.