BANGKOK (AFP) - Thai police said on Saturday (May 6) they were hunting for suspected human smugglers who deserted 35 Myanmar nationals in southern Thailand, a key stop on a regional trafficking route.
The 28 men and 7 women were found in Thailand's Nakhon Si Thammarat province on Friday without passports or proper visas, provincial police commander Wancha Akepornpich told AFP.
They were bound for Malaysia where they had been promised work on rubber and palm plantations.
"Their driver told them to wait while he went to go buy meals, but then he fled," Akepornpich said.
The officer told AFP the men and women were not Rohingya, a Muslim minority that has fled Myanmar in droves to escape persecution.
The group told Thai police they crossed overland into western Thailand before travelling south by truck.
That route has become more popular since Thai authorities clamped down on trafficking gangs who for years ferried tens of thousands of Myanmar refugees and migrants across the Bay of Bengal by boat.
Before crossing into Malaysia, the trafficking victims were often held in Thai jungle camps where they were beaten, raped and abused until relatives paid release ransoms.
The dangerous sea crossings have slowed dramatically since the 2015 crackdown, according to a recent report by the UN's refugee agency.
The UNHCR said there were rumours of "isolated attempts" but no confirmed maritime arrivals in 2016.
However more than 100 Myanmar people - half of whom were Rohingya - were caught by authorities attempting overland travel to Malaysia, it said.
Thailand's belated crackdown led to the prosecution of more than 80 trafficking suspects, including local officials and a senior army general.
Yet their ongoing trial has been closed off to the media, raising concerns about transparency.
While the movement of Rohingya through Thailand has slowed to a trickle, some 75,000 of the ethnic minority have fled west to Bangladesh since October.
The mass exodus was spurred by a bloody military crackdown in the north of Rakhine state, where the nearly one-million strong Rohingya are based.