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May 2, 2015 6:52 AM

Thai police dig up graves at suspected trafficking camp

The Associated Press

PADANG BESAR, Thailand (AP) Police officials in Thailand trekked into the mountains to dig up shallow graves Saturday, after the grim discovery of an abandoned jungle camp renewed calls for a crackdown on the human trafficking networks operating in the Southeast Asian country.

At least five corpses were found by Saturday afternoon as efforts continued to dig up about 30 gravesites scattered around a camp tucked in a forested area of southern Thailand, said police Gen. Jarumporn Suramanee, who was leading the excavation that started a day earlier.

The cause of the deaths was not immediately clear. But Friday's discovery of the hidden mountain camp was a sharp reminder that trafficking continues in Thailand despite repeated assurances by authorities that they are addressing the root causes.

Authorities say the area of the camp, in the mountains of Padang Besar, a sub-district in Songkhla province, is regularly used to smuggle Rohingya Muslims, who are persecuted in neighboring Myanmar, as well as Bangladeshis and other migrants, to third countries.

A government spokesman issued a stern reaction on Saturday, saying Thailand is determined "to eliminate every type of human trafficking and block Thailand from being a transit point." The spokesman, Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, added that those behind the camp will be "severely punished," regardless of whether they are common criminals or corrupt officials.

Human Rights Watch called for an independent investigation, saying the involvement of corrupt Thai officials has long fueled the trafficking industry.

"Trafficking of persons in Thailand has long been out of control," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The finding of a mass grave at a trafficking camp sadly comes as little surprise."

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. The ranking took into account the smuggling of Myanmar's Rohingya community, as well as cases of migrants from neighboring countries who are forced or defrauded into working against their will in the sex industry, commercial fishing, garment production, factories and domestic work.

Thailand has promised action in order to get off the blacklist, but recent revelations by The Associated Press that its fishing vessels were treating men from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos as virtual slaves have dented the country's reputation more.

Authorities discovered the camp Friday, acting on a tip. Police and rescuers reached the mountain camp on foot, and found a clearing with 39 bamboo huts, two dozen sleeping quarters and some makeshift kitchens and toilets.

They also found one corpse covered with a blanket and a weak, ailing male survivor identified as a Bangladeshi national before beginning to dig up graves. The survivor told police that about 100 Rohingya were held there and taken away just days before police arrived, said local police commander Col. Weerasant Tharnpiem.

The man was sent to a hospital for treatment of malnourishment. Police could not immediately confirm if the captives were Rohingya Muslims and were trying to verify the identities and nationalities of both living and dead through DNA and other analysis.

One of the world's most persecuted minorities, Rohingya Muslims have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist.

Mob attacks on Rohingya in the last three years have sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people since the Vietnam War, with 100,000 men, women and children fleeing, said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which has monitored the movements of Rohingya for more than a decade.

Their first stop is almost always Thailand.

Lewa believes there are around 800 people still in jungle camps in Thailand. However, there has been a change of tactics recently.

Instead of jungle camps, Rohingya and Bangladeshis have in recent months been taken to large ships while they wait for ransoms to be paid, said Lewa, who estimates that 7,000 to 8,000 migrants are currently parked off the coast or in nearby international waters. Their health is inevitably deteriorating quickly, she said, and increasingly there are reports of deaths.


Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone and Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok and Robin McDowell in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.


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