Reeling from the discovery of 32 bodies of trafficked migrants in southern Thailand, the junta in Bangkok is seeking the cooperation of Malaysia and Myanmar to help combat the growing human smuggling problem in the region.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, in a late televised address on Friday, acknowledged the involvement of government officials in lucrative human trafficking syndicates, as a mayor and deputy mayor were arrested and about 50 police officers transferred from their posts from the country’s troubled south.
“I have ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to liaise with Malaysia and Myanmar to hold a meeting to resolve this,” Prayuth told journalists, according to the Reuters news agency. “We think this meeting can be held by the end of this month.”
Following the discovery last week of 32 bodies believed to be those of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state and Bangladesh at two locations in Songkhla province, 30 more suspected migrants’ graves were found Thursday but authorities have yet to exhume any bodies from that site.
Southern Thailand is notorious as a transit point for the trafficking into Malaysia of Rohingya Muslims, a stateless minority in Myanmar fleeing persecution.
Bangladesh’s envoy in Thailand Saida Muna Tasneem said her country was also willing to cooperate with Thailand to stem the problem.
“Bangladesh will talk soon with the Thai government about cooperation between the two countries for joint action to curb human trafficking,” she told RFA by phone Friday.
She gave the interview before travelling to Songkhla, where she met with the governor, the provincial police chief and two Bangladeshi trafficking victims.
In another development Friday, 60 Bangladeshi migrants were detained after they were caught trekking in a rubber plantation in Rattapum district in Songkhla , said Police Col. Polahol Ketkaew of the local border patrol.
Suspected traffickers killed in Bangladesh
Meanwhile in Dhaka, State Minister of Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told reporters that the Bangladeshi government would crack down on people-smuggling.
“Law and enforcement agencies will go after traffickers … who are smuggling Bangladeshi men or Rohingya using Thai routes for trafficking into Malaysia, and bring them to justice,” he said.
On Friday, Bangladeshi police shot and killed three suspects, who were accused of trafficking thousands of Bangladeshis and Burmese, during a shootout in Cox’s Bazar district, near the Myanmar border.
The three men had operated human trafficking networks in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, Agence France-Presse quoted Ataur Rahman, a police chief in the district, as saying.
“The three are the most notorious human traffickers to have been operating along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border for years,” Rahman said.
More arrests in Thailand
In southern Thailand, several local officials and a Burmese national have been arrested on human trafficking charges in connection with the discovery of the bodies of trafficked migrants.
National police on Friday announced that the mayor of Padang Besar – a sub-district in Songkhla where the bodies were found – had been arrested in connection with the case. Padang Besar’s deputy mayor was taken into custody a day earlier on similar charges.
In announcing the arrest of Mayor Banjong Pongpol, national police chief Gen. Somyos Poompanmuang warned that no one would be spared in the pursuit of officials linked to human smuggling, the Associated Press reported.
“If you are still neglecting, or involved with, or supporting or benefitting from human-trafficking networks – your heads will roll,” AP quoted Somyos as telling reporters in Bangkok.
On Friday afternoon, Somyos went to Trang province in the south, where he announced the arrest of a seventh suspect in the case, Supoj Meuansew, an alleged hitman connected to human traffickers.
Supoj was arrested on charges of murder and human trafficking, and was a “key suspect” in the ring that Banjong allegedly belonged to, Somyos said.
UN: ‘Sharp increase’ in perilous sea crossings
In Geneva, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the number of illegal migrants undertaking dangerous sea journeys in and around the Bay of Bengal had risen sharply in the first quarter of 2015.
According to UNHCR estimates, some 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis boarded smugglers’ boats during the first three months of the year – almost twice the number that had undertaken such crossings in the region during the same period last year.
UNHCR issued a statement welcoming the Thai government’s proclaimed crackdown on human smuggling, but the agency said it was appalled by the deaths of the migrants whose bodies were found in Songkhla.
“Considering the growing scale and severity of the boat exodus, UNHCR calls on countries in the region to work more closely together to counter the smuggling and trafficking of vulnerable people,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said.