Updated at 7:59 p.m. ET on 2015-05-06
The dead found on the Thai-Malaysia border this week may have been killed by traffickers who did not receive ransom money, or they may have fallen mortally ill after forced labor, according to the director of a Malaysian NGO.
And despite governmental claims of no evidence of a Malaysian connection, citizens of Malaysia indeed are involved in human trafficking along the border, says Glorene Das, director of Tenaganita, a Kuala Lumpur-based group that advocates migrant rights.
“Human trafficking is a big business in southern Thailand; thousands cross between the borders into Malaysia and Thailand every day,” she said in a statement.
“From the stories and testimonies of the migrant and refugee communities, in particular the Burmese, Rohingyas and Bangladeshi communities, Malaysians are very much involved in trafficking of persons at the border of Thai- Malaysia,” the statement said.
On Monday, Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said his government had seen no evidence of a Malaysian connection to the deaths of 26 people whose bodies were recovered last week at a human trafficking camp in Padang Besar, a sub-district in Songkhla province, just 300 meters (984 feet) from the Malaysian border.
On Wednesday, Thai authorities exhumed the bodies of six people at a cemetery not far from the trafficking camp. Thai police suspect that the six were Rohingya Muslim refugees, members of a stateless minority in Myanmar.
The bodies were badly decomposed, but they were identified as two males and four females, said Col. Marut Reungchinda, deputy superintendent of Police Bureau 9 in Songkhla.
“The remains will be transferred to the Prince of Songkhla Hospital for DNA tests, and then religious rites will be performed,” Marut said.
Earlier this week a Burmese national and three local officials – a municipal councilman in Padang Besar and two assistant village headmen in the sub-district – were arrested in connection with the case of the 26 bodies. The suspects were charged under Thailand’s human trafficking laws, and authorities said they were looking for four more suspects.
Buried and burned
According to Das, trafficking syndicates involve Burmese, Rohingya and Bangladeshis as well as Malaysians, working together with a “very sophisticated and structured” modus operandi.
Muslim Rohingyas and other Burmese refugees have told Tenaganita that after being held at detention camps and prisons in Thailand, many “are sent to the border to be sold to human traffickers and agents for sex and labor trafficking,” Das said.
“There are many cases of kidnapping too, where huge amounts of money as ransom are demanded by Malaysian human traffickers, agents and kidnappers from the families of migrants and refugees. When ransom money is not paid accordingly to the demands, they are then brutally killed and buried,” she said.
Many migrants and refugees are forced to work to pay off ransoms and debts, to the point where they fall ill and die, amid a lack of medical treatment.
“All their bodies are buried and burned in southern Thailand,” she said.
Thailand: transit point
According to Fortify Rights, a human rights organization based in Washington D.C., Thailand is a major hub in the lucrative trade of smuggling Rohingya into neighboring Malaysia.
“Rohingya arriving in Thailand are typically brought to traffickers’ camps set up in remote jungles in mainland Thailand or on small islands. At any given time – even now during the ‘low’ season in human trafficking via Thailand – there are thousands of Rohingya in dozens of traffickers’ camps…,” Fortify Rights Executive Director Matthew Smith told U.S. lawmakers last month.
He cited interviews by Fortify Rights with survivors, human traffickers and brokers.
Traffickers “hold Rohingya under duress, subjecting them to severe beatings, torture, deprivations, and squalid conditions,” Smith said while testifying before a congressional panel on April 22.
Traffickers also were known to extort money from Rohingya for their release or onward travel, he added.
A long journey
The trip to Thailand for these Muslim people fleeing persecution in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar can take 12 days and involves arduous river, sea and overland travel, according to a human trafficker who spoke to BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
Brokers receive between 50,000 (U.S. $1,500) to 100,000 baht (U.S. $3,000) as commissions to arrange the trip to Thailand, which starts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the trafficker said.
After they arrive by sea in Thailand’s peninsular Ranong or Phang-Nga provinces, the Rohingya will travel south by truck – by the hundreds, in some cases – until they arrive in Padang Besar, he said.
Occasionally, the traffickers and their human cargo have had to take detours, in which he has witnessed migrants die from suffocation in overcrowded vehicles, he added.
“Sometimes we go out of the route without knowing where we are, but we have to go,” the trafficker said. “The longer the way, the greater are the risks we have to take.”
He said he was helping the migrants, not trafficking them.
“We who do this think we are helping them to travel to the third countries because, at home, they are persecuted,” the man said. “They were not lured into traveling but they are willing to do so [in order] to meet and live with relatives in more convenient places.”
“It’s not human trafficking but, I admit, it’s illegal,” he added.