Pressing questions after human trafficking grave found in southern Thailand

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 5, 2015

Thailand’s military government is facing new pressure following the discovery of a mass grave in the country’s south, where dozens of bodies, presumably victims of human trafficking, were buried. Police have made several arrests linked to the crime and the Thai junta has vowed to take action.

The shallow graves containing 26 bodies were discovered by Thai authorities on Friday in Songkhla province, deep in the jungle near the Malaysian border and is believed to be part of a camp where up to 400 trafficked migrants were held for ransom and confined to 39 bamboo huts. Some survivors were found at or near the camp. On the possible cause of death, a Thai police officer stated:

“From initial forensic investigation at the site there are no marks on the bones or breakages that would suggest a violent death,” Police Colonel Triwit Sriprapa, deputy commander of Songkhla Provincial Police, said. “It is likely that they died from disease and malnutrition.”

Bodies from mass grave in Thailand jungle camp ‘didn’t die violently’“, South Chinese Morning Post, May 4, 2015

Thai police also have yet to confirm that the migrants were Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority that have been denied citizenship in neighboring Burma (Myanmar) and targeted in violent persecutions by extremist Buddhists over the past couple of years, resulting in hundreds being killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. This has driven thousands to flee the country, many via the Andaman Sea in the hope of reaching Malaysia or Indonesia, but often illegally cross into Thai territory. These risky boat trips are mostly facilitated or intercepted by human traffickers, who then hold these refugees for ransom from their relatives or force into them into labor to pay off their debts.

That these cases have become so rampant and busts like the one last week are so rare is due to many factors: on one hand Thai authorities regard these migrants as illegal economic immigrants and not as refugees. Also they in some instances have failed to report such activities based on a technicality. Even worse, some Thai officials themselves were directly involved in human trafficking as well, with few consequences (see Siam Voices’ coverage in 2013) – other than going after those reporting on these shortcomings.

This has partly contributed to Thailand’s poor anti-human trafficking record, resulting in a downgrade by the U.S. Sate Department last year and more recently being put on a watch list by the European Union because of slaves on Thai fishing boats (see here, here and here) – which could result in a trade ban for Thai seafood products.

The methods of the traffickers have become more sophisticated, as fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Francis Wade wrote:

[…] it’s worth remembering how [Thai] officials have aided and profited from a trade suspected to be worth up to $250 million annually. With the rising profits has also come a greater sophistication in the trade: the boy who watched fellow travelers being pitched into the ocean said he only managed to survive because his boat had a desalination plant that supplied fresh water to his and other vessels carrying trafficked Rohingya. As Phuketwan notes, the clampdowns on onshore trafficking sites have moved the industry further “offshore”, and onto floating camps where the smugglers’ bounty is held until the next link in the trafficking chain running from Burma (Myanmar) to Thailand is ready to take them. Until demand is curtailed, traffickers will keep coming up with new ways to ensure the industry stays afloat.

Rohingya deaths: String of mass graves stretches from Burma to Thailand“, by Francis Wade, Asian Correspondent, May 1, 2015

Also, a survivor who managed to escape captivity told The Nation about the conditions in these camps, saying the 26 bodies may only be the tip of the iceberg:

(…) this survivor said he had heard that more than 500 victims were killed at various camps holding human-trafficking or kidnap victims along the Thai-Malaysian borders. “I’ve also heard that thousands of Rohingya migrants were at those camps waiting for promised jobs or for ransom to arrive,” he said.

This survivor said he was lured out of Myanmar’s Rakhine state six months ago by an offer to find him a job in Malaysia. He ended up in the same camp as Kazim, where between 700 and 800 migrants were held. “My mum had to sell our family’s land to pay for my ransom. That’s why I am still safe,” he said. (…)

The survivor from the camp said that during his time there, between 17 and 20 people were killed. “They were either shot or clubbed to death,” he said. He said victims whose relatives could not afford the ransom would be fatally attacked or left to die.

Survivor believes more than 500 killed in camps“, by Krissana Thiwatsirikul, Mary Bradley & Somjit Rungjamrasrassamee, The Nation, May 4, 2015

Thai authorities said on Monday that four suspects have been arrested in connection to the mass grave, among them a local administrative official, two police officers and a Burmese man. The latter is reportedly already known to the police as a human trafficker and his arrest is hailed as “huge”, according to the provincial deputy police commander. Four other suspects are being sought.

Meanwhile, after inspecting the scene with the National Police chief over the weekend, Thai army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr has pledged to “punish” local authorities if illegal smuggling of Rohingyas take place in their respective jurisdictions. This was followed later that day by an order to transfer local police officers to inactive posts, among them the police commander of Satun province, high ranking officers of the border town Padang Besar’s police station, and the border patrol police.

Human Rights Watch has called for an independent and international inquiry. That is not very surprising, since it expresses skepticism towards the Thai authorities – given that they have been aware of human trafficking actions for years, but have failed to act upon it with some even enriching themselves with it – and their ability to completely clean up their own ranks.