There could be 10,000 boat people detained near the Thai-Malaysian border in more than 100 detention camps, held in custody by guards who are both locals and Rohingya, according to a top official in a humanitarian mission of the Chularatchamontree, Thailand's Muslim spiritual leader.
There could be up to 70 camps in Songkhla alone, scattered throughout the province and run by a network gangs. These may also cover Nakhon Si Thammarat and parts of Bangkok, said Ari Areef, chairman of the non-profit group Ummatee Thailand.
However, he said, there was insufficient evidence to back this claim, which could spur the ongoing crackdown on people traffickers and smugglers.
Ari estimated that more than 1,000 bodies could eventually be found in the four southern provinces, saying it was now time for drastic suppression of Rohingya trafficking.
"All we need now is time and opportunity for good officials to expose and tackle the problem, and all truths would be revealed," he said.
Meanwhile, a senior internal security source said Article 44, a measure in the interim charter, is likely to be utilised to drive the ongoing crackdown on Rohingya trafficking, regardless of delay or success of a complete scan of detention camps and relevant illegal activities in southern provinces after a 10-day deadline imposed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Article 44, which gives broad and absolute power to Prayut, both as PM and coup leader, would enable quick consolidation of state authorities and pooling of relevant personnel to suppress trafficking gangs.
The measures would include urgent transfers of police, military personnel or civilian officials suspected of being involved in crimes or "incompetent" in their jobs and the appointment of immediate replacements.
Ari said a group of Rohingya who fled persecution in Myanmar about five years ago started trafficking operations, but there was no torture or assault of fellow Rohingya at that time.
They only demanded fees for transporting fellow Rohingya to destinations such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia through Thailand after leaving Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Violence, torture and murder had been committed later, while ransoms were demanded from relatives of boat people held captive back in their original home areas in Bangladesh and Myanmar.
But Ari did not specify whether the violence or demands for money was done by Rohingya or local people. Ransom demands ranged from Bt20,000 (S$790) to Bt120,000, he said.
The abuse of Rohingya varied depending on the traffickers and guards. Men were often beaten during telephone calls, so their relatives could hear their suffering and would send money.
Adult women were raped by smugglers/traffickers and crews on fishing trawlers if detained on vessels, and later sold as prostitutes in Malaysia or to rubber plantations to "serve" male rubber tappers.
Rohingya men would be killed in front of all others, if they reacted or attempt to help the women - to scare off those trying to resist.
Young children of both sexes were separated from their mothers and cared for by outsiders, but details of their fate were unknown.
Those whose relatives agreed to co-operate were often treated better or received better welfare after the gangs received money, but ransoms were often demanded again - with the traffickers lying and saying they had not received money that had been sent, he said.