BANGKOK - Three local Thai officials and a Myanmar national have been arrested on suspicion of human trafficking after the remains of 26 migrants were found in a mass grave in southern Thailand, police said Monday.
The decomposed bodies of migrants thought to have come from Myanmar or Bangladesh were exhumed over the weekend at an abandoned jungle camp in the Sadao district of Songkhla province.
The discovery of the site, just a few hundred metres from the border with Malaysia, once again exposed the kingdom's central role in the regional human trafficking trade.
Tens of thousands of migrants, mainly from Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority but also increasingly Rohingya from Bangladesh, have made the dangerous sea crossing to southern Thailand, with many bound for Malaysia.
On Monday police said they arrested three local male officials in Songhkla, and were holding a fourth man from Myanmar in Nakhon Sri Thammarat province after his arrest Tuesday.
"One is a member of the local municipal council and the other two are assistant village headmen," said a senior police official, who did not want to be named, of the Thai men arrested, adding that the other man in detention was a Myanmar national.
He also said a further four arrest warrants had been issued in connection with the mass grave but gave no more details.
Nakhon Sri Thammarat deputy police commander Anuchon Chamart said the Myanmar national - Soe Naing, known as Anwar - was a "central figure who ran camps and sought ransoms" in a major people-smuggling operation.
"He was involved with smuggling Rohingya from Myanmar through Thailand to Indonesia and Malaysia," Anuchon told AFP.
He added that Anwar was also being investigated for fraud based on allegations he failed to release a trafficked Rohingya migrant, who has not yet been traced, after accepting a ransom of 95,000 baht ($2,850) Thailand's border zone with Malaysia is criss-crossed by trafficking trails and is notorious for its network of secret camps where smuggled migrants are held, usually against their will, until relatives pay hefty ransoms.
Thai police said Sunday they are searching for other camps following the discovery of the mass grave, with dozens of other people-smuggling sites believed to be based in the area.
The exodus of Rohingya - described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities - has followed deadly communal unrest in western Myanmar's Rakhine state since 2012.
Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh have also been kidnapped and trafficked to Thailand, after being duped with fake job offers or even drugged.
Thailand says it is cracking down on trafficking networks on its soil after revelations that government officers, police and navy officials have been involved in the lucrative trade in humans fleeing poverty and persecution.