Death camp close to Thai village

Death camp close to Thai village
A bamboo prison and a child's shirt found at the abandoned human traffickers' camp near Ban Taloh village in Padang Besar. When security officers entered the camp on May 1, they found shallow graves containing at least 26 bodies.

SONGKHLA, Thailand - Ban Taloh is the kind of place where strangers easily stick out.

Its most prominent landmark is a one-storey mosque at a quiet junction. Locals make a living tapping rubber and gather by a roadside tea hut for daily gossip.

But it was on the outskirts of this village, by the mountainous Thai-Malaysian border in Songkhla province, that Thai security officers first uncovered mass graves of trafficked migrants, sparking a crackdown that set off a regional migrant crisis over the past few weeks.

The area is part of a well-worn human smuggling route. It is used by Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya, who are edged out of their homes by sectarian violence and official denial of citizenship, as they sail down the Andaman Sea and trek through Thai jungles in search of better lives in Malaysia.

But thousands fall into the hands of traffickers, ending up living in slave-like conditions and imprisoned in forest camps where they are tortured for ransom.

The Thai crackdown on trafficking is widening by the day. Since May 1, Thai police have issued about 80 arrest warrants and detained at least 46 people. Some 70 police officers have been suspended from duty pending probes.

Those arrested include the former mayor of Padang Besar, a border municipality, as well as Ban Taloh's headman, Yalee Krem. Two assistant village chiefs in the same sub-district have also been detained.

Had villagers been complicit in the trafficking?

Mr Anuchit Wongcharoenchai, a 45-year-old farmer there, vehemently denies this. "If we had made money from it, we wouldn't need to tap rubber," he said.

The forest trail leading to the traffickers' camp lies at the end of a dirt road on the edge of the village. From there, it is a steep 30-minute climb through thick forest and a haze of mosquitoes, on a narrow but well-trodden path.

There are few other signs of human life until you near the top of Kaew mountain and stumble upon the rubbish-strewn clearing still fetid with the odour of hundreds of former captives crammed into a cluster of bamboo prisons.

Many parts of the camp have been dismantled and removed by the authorities, but drum-sized cooking vats heaped in one corner hint at the scale of the operation.

Deep pits dug into the ground served as toilets, shielded by canvas-lined frames. A watch tower looms over the bamboo prisons. A wooden hut with a small verandah probably housed the captors.

This was a camp that would have required a large and constant supply of provisions, and would not have escaped notice in Ban Taloh during the year or more that it existed.

"I knew that Rohingya were around here," admitted assistant village chief Abdullah Wongyai, 54. "But I always thought they were on the Malaysian side."

Rohingya advocates alleged that traffickers usually offer villagers living nearby a reward for tipping them off about escapees.

"I think (the villagers) know," said Police Major-General Putichart Ekachant, the deputy commissioner of the police unit in southern Thailand. But "our evidence cannot touch them". For now.

His officers are instead trying to educate villagers on the gravity of the issue, and urge them to turn information over to the police.

A shiny banner outside Ban Taloh's mosque urges locals to "stop human trafficking" and advertises a hotline for informants to call.

On May 1, when security officers entered the abandoned camp, they found shallow graves containing at least 26 bodies. They also found an emaciated man left for dead, and several others nearby in subsequent days.

One of the survivors, 25-year-old Surat Alam from Myanmar's Rakhine state, said he was promised a job upon arrival in Malaysia that would help pay off his 160,000 Bangladeshi taka (S$2,750) passage, he said.

Instead, when he reached Thailand, traffickers called his family in Myanmar and flogged him while they were on the other end of the line, to terrorise them into paying.

"They told my family to sell the house. But no one wanted to buy the house," he said from his bed in Padang Besar Hospital. He was battered at least three times, and saw 18 other people die from the abuse.

The camp, he said, was guarded by a mix of Bangladeshi, Rohingya and Thai men, some of whom were armed. Some lived with their Rohingya wives.

Meals consisted of plain boiled rice, until his captors decided he was too weak and ill to keep around.

When rescuers found him in the nearby forest early this month, he had not eaten for nine days, and had resorted to chewing leaves.

"I want to go back to Myanmar," he said, in between anaemic gasps for air. "But I am afraid the government will put me in jail."

There may be hope for him yet.

While Thailand has declined to take in the estimated 7,000 boat people stranded in South-east Asian waters after its crackdown forced traffickers to abandon their human cargo, Indonesia and Malaysia have offered temporary refuge.

The United States has offered to help in the resettlement.

Thailand, which was given the lowest possible grade for its anti-trafficking efforts in the US' annual report on the issue last year, is keen to avoid the black mark this year. But it is too early to tell if this crackdown will have much of an impact.

"This is only a start," said Mr Abdul Kalam, a Thailand-based Rohingya activist. The culprits still need to be prosecuted for the action to carry any weight.

Besides, experts said, the police have merely uncovered a small part of the illicit business, which is oiled by corrupt officials who grant traffickers safe passage.

Even though local officials like the ones at Ban Taloh have been arrested, a senior official from the National Human Rights Commission, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "They have so far caught only the 'small mafia', not the big ones."

If the crackdown does not reach the kingpins, the trafficking gangs will simply find new ways to continue their brutal trade.

tanhy@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 24, 2015.
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