Thailand arrests 4, vows crackdown on human traffickers

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PADANG BESAR, Thailand (AP) — Police arrested three Thai officials and a Myanmar citizen in a crackdown on a long-existing criminal network that smuggles persecuted ethnic Muslims from Myanmar into Thailand and holds them captive in camps where scores have died before they can pay ransoms demanded for their freedom.

The arrests have exposed a link between the human traffickers and local Thai officials, who have apparently been taking bribes to either collude with the traffickers or at least turn a blind eye to the smuggling, according to human rights groups.

Thai police moved in swiftly after the grim discovery Friday of a camp in a hillside jungle bordering Malaysia which contained the graves of 26 people believed to be asylum seekers or migrants from Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh.

Authorities say the area in the mountains of Padang Besar, a sub-district of Songkhla province, is regularly used to smuggle Rohingya Muslims, who are a persecuted minority in neighboring Myanmar, as well as Bangladeshis and other migrants, to third countries. Many set their sights on Malaysia, which is predominantly Muslim.

The discovery of the jungle camp was the latest blow to Thailand's image, after repeated assurances that it was tackling human trafficking.

Last June, the United States 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 in order to get off the blacklist, but its reputation suffered following recent revelations by the AP that some Thai fishing vessels kept men from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos on board as forced labor or slaves.

A single survivor was found at the abandoned jungle camp, a 28-year-old man named Tutan Saha who said he was Bangladeshi and had been regularly punched and beaten with a stick by captors who demanded a ransom he couldn't pay.

Early last week, just days before the camp was discovered, the captors were alerted of an imminent raid, Saha said in an interview at a hospital in Padang Besar where he was being treated for severe malnutrition.

"They said, 'Police are coming! Police are coming.' But I couldn't move, so they left me there," he said, estimating that about 200 migrants were held at the camp. "They told me, 'You cannot go anywhere. You cannot go to Malaysia. You have to die here in Thailand.'"

Saha said that during a 9-month captivity he was shuttled around to seven camps. Echoing the reports of several activists, he said the abandoned camp that police found Friday is not the only one with dead bodies.

"There are other camps with graves like this one," he said.

National police chief Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung vowed "blanket patrols" of the mountains to find any other traffickers' camps. Police were combing Khao Kaew mountain in Songkla province, where the camp was located close to the border with Malaysia, and planned to expand their search to other areas where dense jungle obscures the land.

"We are not stopping here. We will search in the widest area and do it until we are certain that there are no other camps left," Somyot told reporters. "We will find out if there are more."

Abdul Kalam, a Rohingya activist based in Thailand, estimated that traffickers have set up dozens of camps in the jungles near the Thai-Malaysia border.

"The discovery Friday was just the tip of the iceberg," said Kalam, who works to free captive refugees, adding that the number of camps had multiplied in recent years because of the collusion of corrupt officials. "The police knew about it and didn't do anything. They were bribed. The state personnel got bribed, that's why these camps exist and have increased."

Human Rights Watch said in a statement Friday that the "long involvement of Thai officials in trafficking" calls for an independent investigation to uncover the truth and hold any higher-ups accountable.

Somyot said investigations so far show that those behind the camp were part of a "transnational crime network" that included people from Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia and had been operating for three or four years.

Police said they arrested two Padang Besar deputy village chiefs on Monday and a member of the Padang Besar municipal council on Sunday. They face a variety of charges related to human trafficking.

Police said they also arrested a Myanmar citizen, 40 year-old Zaw Naing Anu, or Anwar, who had previously been arrested in Thailand for fraud and for kidnapping Rohingyas.

Members of the Rohingya Muslim minority have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist. Mob attacks in the last three years have left up to 280 people dead, sparking one of the region's biggest exoduses since the Vietnam War.


Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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