Authorities in Thailand said they found 30 more graves of suspected illegal migrants in the south of the country on Thursday, amid a deepening human trafficking scandal that has seen a deputy mayor arrested and about 50 police officers transferred from their posts.
Forensics teams will dig up the graves in Hat Yai district in Songkhla province on Friday, police said.
So far, the authorities have found the bodies of 32 migrants. They were recovered from two sites in a jungle in the province’s Padang Besar sub-district near the border with Malaysia.
Thai border patrolmen stumbled on the new graves at a burial ground in the village of Baan Chalung, while they combed Khao Kaew mountain as part of a governmental crackdown on human trafficking.
Villagers said the graves were in what they believed to be a former camp for trafficking stateless Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar. Members of this minority undertake perilous journeys by sea and land to escape religious and ethnic persecution as well as search for jobs.
“Previously in this vicinity, there used to be one of the big trafficking camps for Rohingya in Songkhla province,” a resident of Baan Chalung told BenarNews.
Thailand’s far southern region is known as a major transit point for the trafficking into Malaysia of Rohingyas.
Abdul Mabud, a member of the Burmese Rohingya Association of Thailand, told BenarNews he had reason to believe that several hundred Rohingya were now traveling by sea toward Thai shores.
He expressed fear that the passengers on the vessels in the Andaman Sea could be blocked from coming ashore and that the lives of his fellow Rohingya could be in danger.
“There are some people afloat on boats in the sea. They cannot dock at Phang-nga or Satun and they might be killed and thrown into the water,” Mabud said, referring to two other provinces in southern Thailand.
Officials implicated, cops disciplined
At least five people, including a Burmese national and four local officials from Padang Besar, have been arrested since Monday on suspicion of involvement in human trafficking.
Among them is Padang Besar Deputy Mayor Prasit Laemleh, who turned himself in following a warrant of arrest issued on him.
Deputy National Police Chief Gen. Ek Angsananond told a news conference in Hat Yai on Thursday that Prasit had denied charges of being involved in human trafficking, illegal detention and holding people for ransom.
Altogether there are 18 suspects in the Padang Besar case, 13 of whom are at-large and have warrants out for their arrests, Maj. Gen. Puthachart
Ekachan, deputy superintendent of the police bureau 9 command, told reporters.
Some 50 police officers serving in the south have also been transferred out over alleged links to human trafficking.
Among them were 30 cops from Ranong, Satun and Songkhla provinces, National Police Chief Gen. Somyos Poompanmuang said Wednesday.
“I will not allow these kind of camps to exist in Thailand,” Agence France-Presse quoted Somyos as saying.
Following the discovery of the 30 graves on Thursday, Border Patrol Police found an abandoned human trafficking camp in a rubber plantation in Rattapum district in Songkhla and arrested 15 undocumented Rohingya migrants trekking through the jungle.
According to the Bangkok Post, 17 other undocumented Rohingya were arrested in the area a day earlier.
The operations carried out by the border patrol were part of an effort by Thai authorities to cut off routes used by traffickers to smuggle in people, Gen. Ek told reporters.
“The seal-off operation covers the [point of] origin in Satun province, both seashores and inland trails, where Rohingya dock on the beaches and then trek through the natural trails to Songkhla province. Police, military and civilian officials are patrolling around,” he said.