Sixty-five Rohingya landed on an island in southern Thailand on Tuesday with six suspected human traffickers, including five from Myanmar, after their wooden boat ran out of fuel, officials said.
Five children were among the Rohingya passengers that included 29 men and 31 women who were stranded on Rawi island in Satun province, Thai Coast Guard Cmdr. Thanapong Sudrak told reporters.
He said a Thai man and five Myanmar nationals were on board and were being held for questioning, as authorities believe they helped facilitate the travel in what could be a case of human smuggling or trafficking.
“We moved them to the mainland for questioning because there was one Thai man on board and we will investigate if this is human trafficking,” Thanapong said, emphasizing that Coast Guard crewmen had provided water and food to the passengers and their suspected “facilitators.”
Police identified the Thai man as Sangkom Papan, 50, from nearby Ranong province, next to Myanmar, but did not release the identities of the five Burmese.
“Officials from agencies involved discussed an urgent plan to help them and to interrogate the Thai,” Police Col. Samrej Jai-eau, the deputy chief of the police station in La-ngu district of Satun, told BenarNews.
Four years ago, Thai authorities discovered the graves of 32 Rohingya and Bangladeshis near the Malaysian border, prompting a crackdown on illegal immigration. Thailand subsequently sealed its maritime borders to boats smuggling people from Bangladesh and Myanmar.
In 2017, a Thai court convicted and sentenced Former Army Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen to 27 years for trafficking Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladeshis as part of a crime syndicate that was exposed through the unearthing of the graves in the jungle in southern Songkhla province. The former military officer was among dozens of people convicted.
A co-founder of the rights groups Fortify Rights told BenarNews that Rohingya would be expected to continue fleeing their homes in Myanmar where they have been subjected to decades of hostility and denied citizenship.
U.N. officials believe a few hundred thousand Rohingya remain in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state despite the destruction of villages during a military crackdown beginning in August 2017 that led to an exodus of more than 700,000 into Bangladesh.
“The numbers of Rohingya arriving in Thailand have decreased in recent years when compared to 2015, but they’ve never really stopped coming,” said Matthew Smith, co-founder and chief executive officer of Fortify Rights.
Thai authorities are obligated to provide protection, Smith said.
“Rohingya are continuing to flee mass atrocities and genocide in Myanmar and inhumane conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh,” he said. “They’re refugees and they have rights.”
In a separate incident, Thai police on Tuesday said they had rescued 38 Myanmar nationals who were confined in darkness in a house while awaiting their “facilitators” in the Had Yai district of the southern province of Songkhla.
Authorities identified them as workers who were hoping to reach Malaysia, but did not release additional details.
Police Inspector-General Suchart Teerasawat said Myanmar nationals often pay their facilitators or brokers about 20,000 baht (U.S. $637) per person.
People found guilty of human trafficking in Thailand could be sentenced up to 15 years in prison and fined up to 1 million baht ($29,759). Thai law imposes double punishment for government officials who are found guilty.
The crime persists despite the stiff penalties, officials said.
“We have ordered local police to eradicate trans-boundary human trafficking, a big problem similar to that of Rohingya,” Suchart told BenarNews. “But there’s still an influx of illegal workers from Myanmar destined for Malaysia.”