Thai police seek local help in people smuggling crackdown

Thai Muslim villagers and security forces watch as coffins containing the remains of Rohingya migrants are placed in a grave for burial after a funeral at a graveyard in Thailand's southern Songkhla province on May 10, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Thai Muslim villagers and security forces watch as coffins containing the remains of Rohingya migrants are placed in a grave for burial after a funeral at a graveyard in Thailand's southern Songkhla province on May 10, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thai police are seeking help from villagers living near a recently uncovered network of jungle camps to aid their investigation into people-smuggling and human trafficking-gangs, a senior officer said on Wednesday.

Suspicion has fallen on remote communities in the deep south whom rights groups say must either have been aware of the trade, or have been actively involved in it.

Seven camps have been uncovered in Songkhla province close to the Malaysian border, highlighting the country's crucial role in the regional smuggling trade.

Some of the camps contained dozens of graves and bodies in various states of decomposition. On Monday, Malaysian officials uncovered a further series of camps on their side of the border complete with 139 grave sites.

The victims are believed to be Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, a heavily persecuted minority, and Bangladeshis fleeing poverty.

Deputy national police chief Aek Angsananont, who is heading Thailand's investigation, told AFP more than 100 police officers were being sent to local villages to try to encourage them to testify.

"They (villagers) see how police have arrested people involved in trafficking and that the courts are not giving these people bail, no matter how big they are," he said.

"When they are confident they cooperate, and they are providing us with information as well as becoming witnesses for trials," he added.

Thai police have arrested nearly 50 people since a crackdown began in early May, including some local officials.

Aek said their investigation was centred on three influential "masterminds" - Ko Tong, Ko Jow and Ko Nui - who allegedly ran a network running across vast tracts of Thailand's south.

All three have been arrested. Little is known about them other than Ko (Big Brother) Tong, who was an influential local politician in Satun province.

'Kindness, not greed'

Rights groups have long complained that Thailand turned a blind eye to people-smuggling - with some officials even complicit in the thriving and lucrative trade. They say local villagers were either forced or volunteered to cooperate.

But Aek said locals, many of whom in the region are Thai Muslims, were more likely acting out kindness than fear or the pursuit of riches.

"They felt sympathy for them, for migrants. They didn't think they were engaged in a crime as they helped those people," he said.

Camp survivors have previously testified to rights groups and journalists that villagers sometimes helped track down anyone who tried to escape the camps.

Police Major General Puthichart Ekachant, a regional commander in southern Thailand, told AFP police had reached out to nearly 7,000 locals to try to dissuade them from helping gangs.

"We are persuading them to be on our side, to give us tip-offs," he said.

More than 80 million baht (S$3.2 million) in assets had been confiscated from trafficking suspects, Aek said, including cars, speedboats and fishing vessels adapted to carry human cargo.

He also said Thai and Malaysian officials were negotiating to allow for the bodies in the Malaysian camps to be brought down via the Thai side of the border.

The belated Thai crackdown disrupted the flow of migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar down through Thailand and across the land border into Malaysia.

That left boats loaded with hundreds of starving migrants stuck at sea. Malaysia and Indonesia recently agreed to let vessels land safely following an international outcry.

Thailand will hold a regional summit on the crisis in Bangkok on Friday.