SONGKHLA – National police chief Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung told reporters at a press conference Thai police arrested three local officials and a Myanmar national that they allege were involved in trafficking and holding Rohingya Muslims for ransom at a jungle camp where 26 bodies were dug up from shallow graves last week in southern Thailand.
National police chief Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung said the suspects—including two deputy village chiefs and a municipal councilor—were believed to be part of a “transnational crime network” that included people from Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia and had been operating for three or four years.
Friday’s discovery of the clandestine camp in southern Thailand, long considered a trafficking hub for migrants seeking a better life, was a sharp reminder that little has changed despite repeated assurances by authorities that they are addressing root causes.
The mass grave was found at a hilltop site near Thailand’s border with Malaysia after a tip-off that human traffickers were holding people there while waiting for payments from relatives who had already made it to Malaysia, police said over the weekend. The cause of deaths has yet to be determined, but investigators said they suspect disease or starvation.
Investigators have previously said that traffickers ferrying people from Myanmar, especially ethnic Rohingya Muslims, use Thailand as a transit point before smuggling people across the border into Malaysia. Human-rights workers say thousands of people pass into Malaysia this way each year. It is a perilous journey across the ocean from Myanmar, where Rohingyas are denied citizenship and often live in refugee camps.
Some who don’t reach their final destination are kept, usually against their will, for months in jungle camps as their relatives scramble to secure ransom payments, authorities say. Others are forced to work without pay on fishing vessels in the region.
It was also the latest blow to Thailand’s image, following a run of disclosures about human trafficking that rights groups say is fueled by the involvement of corrupt Thai officials.
Last June, the U.S. put Thailand in its lowest category—Tier 3—in an annual assessment of how governments around the world have performed in fighting human trafficking.
Thailand has promised action to get off the blacklist, but its reputation suffered following recent revelations that some Thai fishing vessels kept men from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos on board as forced labor.
Gen. Somyot said police were trying to confirm reports that many more camps run by traffickers could be hidden in the mountainous jungles of southern Thailand. Police were combing Khao Kaew mountain in Songkhla province, where the camp was located close to the border with Malaysia, and planned to expand their search.
A lone survivor from the camp, now hospitalized with severe malnutrition, has told authorities that the smugglers escaped earlier last week with about 100 Rohingya.
Members of the religious minority have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist.