PADANG BESAR / NAKHON SI THAMMARAT, Thailand: Thai police have arrested a man they believe is the key figure behind a brutal human trafficking network that ran a jungle camp where dozens of bodies have been found.
Soe Naing, widely known as Anwar, was detained on Wednesday as authorities closed in on a camp near the Thai-Malaysia border where as many as 400 trafficked migrants, mainly Rohingya and Bangladeshis, were imprisoned for ransom, Police Colonel Anuchon Chamat, deputy commander of police in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, told Reuters.
He was charged with fraud related to his failure to release a trafficked Rohingya after receiving a ransom payment.
His arrest, and the uncovering of the camp containing 26 bodies on Friday, is the first major bust of a trade in humans that activists and some Thai officials say has been allowed to flourish for years amid indifference and, sometimes, complicity by Thai authorities.
“This is huge. He’s a big guy, a top guy,” Anuchon said.
Anwar denies any involvement in trafficking and says he made a living tapping rubber and selling fried bread. People with grudges against him circulated his photo and accused him of trafficking, he told Reuters in Nakhon Si Thammarat police station on Wednesday.
“There are many Anwars. I’m also called Anwar. But you have to consider which Anwar is actually a human trafficker,” he said.
Four other people have been arrested for alleged involvement in the network since January, Anuchon said, adding that phone records indicated the operation likely stretched to Malaysia, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Police are collecting evidence with a view to laying charges against Anwar, a Rohingya living in the southern Thai province of Songkhla, for murder, human trafficking and cross-border criminal activity, said Anuchon. Phone records, financial transactions and witness testimony point to Anwar allegedly playing a central role in the operation, Anuchon said. Police are also collecting DNA evidence from the grave site.
Case documents reviewed by Reuters, as well as interviews with police and witnesses, provide some insight into one of the alleged networks involved in the smuggling of the more than 100,000 distressed Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence in Myanmar since 2012 – often held at sea and in camps for months as they are shunted from Myanmar to Thailand, and then Malaysia.
Amy Smith, executive director for Southeast Asia at rights group Fortify Rights, said the camp uncovered on Friday was just one of the many that trafficking survivors say are strewn across southern Thailand.
“To our understanding, this is the first mass grave that’s been uncovered by Thai authorities. This demonstrates Thailand’s level of complacency in conducting proper investigations,” she said.
Reuters has previously documented the involvement of some members of Thai security forces in trafficking, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has acknowledged some official complicity.
Stung by being downgraded by the United States to the lowest category on its annual Trafficking in Persons report – citing a lack of enforcement and the involvement of some officials – Thailand’s military junta has ordered a crackdown on traffickers and introduced the death penalty in cases where their victims died.
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