BANGKOK: Investigators in southern Thailand have discovered five graves at a second remote jungle camp believed to contain the remains of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, police said Tuesday.
The camp was uncovered just a kilometer from a similar encampment on a steep hillside near the Malaysian border, where forensic teams found 26 bodies over the weekend — all but one buried in shallow graves.
“We found the second camp yesterday evening,” national police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri told reporters, saying it was near the first camp 25 kilometres (16 miles) west of Padang Besar in Songkhla province.
“We also found five graves but cannot yet confirm whether any bodies are in them. Authorities will look into this,” he added.
Rights groups have long accused the Thai authorities of turning a blind eye to — and even being complicit in — human trafficking.
Stung by that notorious reputation, Thailand’s military government has launched a crackdown in recent months, arresting scores of officials.
But the grim discovery of bodies in various stages of decay has vividly illustrated the enormous dangers faced by desperate migrants trying to flee persecution or poverty.
Each year tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh make the dangerous sea crossing to southern Thailand, a well-worn trafficking route. They are often headed south to Malaysia and beyond.
But Thailand’s southern border region contains a network of secret camps where smuggled migrants are held, usually against their will, until relatives pay hefty ransoms.
The recent crackdown — sparked by the arrest of an alleged major migrant kingpin known as “Anwar” — has forced smugglers to switch tactics, emptying camps but leaving the weak behind to fend for themselves.
Two adults suffering from malnutrition and scabies were discovered at the first camp and taken to hospital. A fresh corpse was also out in the open.
During a visit to the region on Saturday AFP also came across two teenage migrant boys who had been apprehended by police.
They said they had fled the first camp when the authorities raided it on Friday, for another one nearby — fuelling suspicions that camps are still operating in the region.
The exodus of Rohingya — described by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities — followed deadly communal unrest which broke out in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2012.
Rohingya living in Bangladesh have also been trafficked to Thailand, after being duped with fake job offers or even drugged.
Prawut said five officials from Padang Besar have now been arrested on human trafficking charges since the first camp was discovered, including a suspect who turned himself in on Tuesday morning. Two other local officials were on the run, he added.
“We are looking whether they are in or outside Thailand,” he said.
A separate police statement issued Tuesday said 15 law enforcement officers in southern Thailand have been transferred from their positions, including a senior officer in Padang Besar and another in Satun on Thailand’s southwest coast.
Activists have welcomed the recent arrest of Anwar, a Myanmar national who is himself believed to be a Rohingya.
“His name has been coming through to us for two or three years regularly,” Chris Lewa, from the Arakan Project, which monitors boat crossing and interviews survivors, told AFP.
“He’s often described by migrants as a kingpin,” she added.