BANGKOK - Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Friday called for a three-way meeting with neighbours Malaysia and Myanmar to try to resolve a regional human trafficking crisis following the discovery of a mass grave in the country's far south.
Thirty-three bodies, believed to be migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, have been found in shallow graves over the past week in Songkhla province, near the Malaysian border.
Three suspected trafficking camps have also been found. "I have ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to liaise with Malaysia and Myanmar to hold a meeting to resolve this,"Prayuth told reporters.
"We think this meeting can be held by the end of this month." Police General Aek Angsananont, deputy commissioner-general of the Royal Thai Police, said, so far, eight people have been arrested - seven Thais and a Myanmar national - suspected of having links to human trafficking networks.
A "top figure" in a regional trafficking network had been arrested, police added, without providing details.
Thousands of migrants, including Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar and from Bangladesh, brave perilous journeys by sea and land to escape religious and ethnic persecution and in search of work abroad.
They are often trafficked through Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, and taken into the country's jungles, where traffickers demand ransoms to release them or smuggle them across the border to mainly Muslim Malaysia.
"This problem needs to be solved from the starting point which means Bangladesh and Rakhine in Myanmar," said Prayuth.
Myanmar's permanent secretary at the Ministry of Immigration Myint Kyaing said Myanmar had not yet been contacted about the meeting. "I think we would be interested to take part in that meeting if they officially invited us," said Win Naing Tun, deputy chief of Myanmar's anti-human trafficking police.
Malaysia's foreign ministry spokesman was unable to provide a response when contacted by Reuters.
The United States, which has censured Thailand for failing to act against human trafficking, called on Monday for a speedy and credible inquiry into the discovery of the mass grave.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, during an official visit to Thailand, on Friday commended Thailand for its "timely response" to the discovery of the mass grave and suspected trafficking camps. "This is a very tragic finding. These atrocities must be stopped," Bishop told Reuters.