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Thai authorities discover 26 bodies at suspected trafficking camp

Thailand’s government says it’s determined ‘to eliminate every type of human trafficking’

Police officials in Thailand have dug up 26 bodies from dozens of shallow graves at an abandoned jungle camp that's been linked to human trafficking networks, which activists say are "out of control" in the Southeast Asian country.

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, Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, 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 added that those behind the camp will be "severely punished," regardless of whether they are common criminals or corrupt officials.

"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."

Thai trafficking problems

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 continued reports that its fishing vessels were treating men from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos as virtual slaves have dented the country's reputation even further. 

Authorities also found a weak, ailing male survivor on Friday — identified as a Bangladeshi national — before beginning to dig up the 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.

Call for investigation

As 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.

Authorities told Reuters that two others, both children were found at the camp on Saturday. Both were taken to a nearby hospital.  Meanwhile, HRW is calling for an independent investigation with U.N. involvement to find out what took place at the site.

"The discovery of these mass graves should shock the Thai government into shutting down the trafficking networks that enrich officials but prey on extremely vulnerable people," Adams said. 

Wire services 

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