BANGKOK - 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 last 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, Colonel Anuchon Chamat, deputy commander of police in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, said. He was charged with fraud related to his failure to release a trafficked Rohingya after receiving a ransom payment.
Two teenagers found near the site of the mass grave claimed that at least 800 refugees were being held in the camp. The two teens, aged 14 and 17, said they had been held at the camp for eight months, and that the prisoners had been dispersed shortly before officers moved in last Friday, reported the Bangkok Post.
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," Col Anuchon said.
Anwar denies any involvement in trafficking.
People with grudges against him accused him of trafficking, he said in a police station on Wednesday.
Four other people have been arrested for alleged involvement in the network since January, Col Anuchon said, adding that phone records indicated that the operation likely stretched to Malaysia, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Police are collecting evidence with a view to charge Anwar, a Rohingya living in the southern Thai province of Songkhla, with murder, human trafficking and cross-border criminal activity, he added.
Police witnesses recounted beatings and murders in the camp. A former inmate said they were beaten while on the phone to relatives in order to extract money. Those who could not pay were often killed - he saw 17 people bludgeoned to death in the 10 months he was in the camp.
Police had said on Sunday that initial forensic examination of the bodies found at the site showed no signs of violent death.
Ms Amy Smith from rights group Fortify Rights, said the camp uncovered was the first mass grave found, but is just one of many that trafficking survivors say are strewn across southern Thailand.
More than 100,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims have allegedly been held at sea and in camps for months after fleeing violence in Myanmar in 2012.
Some members of Thai security forces and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha have acknowledged some official complicity in trafficking.
But stung by being downgraded by the United States to the lowest category on its annual Trafficking in Persons report, Thailand's military junta has ordered a crackdown on traffickers and introduced the death penalty in cases where their victims died.