A covered body lies at a makeshift camp in Padang Besar, Songkhla province, May 1, 2015. [BenarNews]
Police in southern Thailand on Friday discovered 31 graves at a camp in the jungle on the Malaysian border, believed to contain the bodies of Rohingya Muslims, officials said.
They found the corpse of another Rohingya on the ground at the site, and rescued a lone survivor said to be from Bangladesh.
The 32 were being smuggled by human traffickers and may have starved to death, police believe.
Thailand’s far southern region is notorious as a transit point for trafficking of illegal migrants, including Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority fleeing persecution and conflict in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
The camp in Padang Besar subdistrict of Songkhla province was just 300 meters (984 feet) from the Malaysian border, police said.
One hour trek through the jungle
Col. Weerasant Tarnpiem, Padang Besar’s police chief, said his station had received a request from a Rohingya aid group in Songkhla to rescue some Rohingya being held captive by a gang.
“Today, 88 policemen trekked to the camp for an hour into the jungle. We found 34 shelters, including bedrooms, rest rooms and a kitchen. It looked like [the camp] had recently been abandoned,” Weerasant said.
“The police found a survivor named Thu Don Kha, 26, a Bangladeshi citizen, who was sick. He told the police there were over 100 Rohingya detained in the camp. But brokers took them for escape. The police also found a dead man and more than 30 graves of Rohingya, both older and newer,” he added.
Five bodies were removed from graves at the site on Friday, according to the Mai Khom Rescue Foundation, a local group that was at the scene and which helped exhume the corpses. It photographed at least two plastic-wrapped bodies and posted the pictures on Facebook.
A worker with the group said the lone survivor, who was very weak and emaciated, was taken to a local hospital.
The six bodies recovered from the camp were taken to Hat Yai, the provincial capital, for autopsies, Mai Khom Rescue Foundation said.
Exhumations were to resume on Saturday, when a forensics team from Bangkok was due to arrive on scene, according to messages posted online by the foundation.
Rohingya trafficking route
Friday’s macabre discovery in the jungle along the Thai-Malaysia border followed the March 30 arrests, in the southern Thai province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, of 76 illegal migrants from Myanmar, including six Rohingya.
Thai authorities caught the 76 on a train bound for Malaysia.
The Rohingya are an ethnic minority concentrated in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
They are stateless in Burma, denied citizenship and often erroneously described as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Since 2012, thousands of Rohingya have fled a conflict in Rakhine, according to Agence France-Presse.
Many seek refuge in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, travelling through Thailand and paying traffickers huge sums of money to facilitate their illegal journeys.
A few days before the 76 Burmese migrants were arrested in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly voted to toughen the nation’s anti-trafficking law and impose harsher penalties on human traffickers.
In Padang Besar on Friday, a local resident told BenarNews that people who lived in the area knew of a camp in the jungle, where Rohingya would stay before they crossed into Malaysia.
“After entering Malaysia, they will wait inside Malaysia at a certain camp for further pickup. Each migrant paid the brokers 50,000 baht (U.S. $1,505), as far as we’ve heard,” the resident said.