BANGKOK - The man behind the massive human smuggling syndicate that has brought thousands of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar to this region has fled Thailand and is believed to be in hiding in Malaysia.
Thai police have launched a manhunt for Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, a one-time senior provincial official known locally as Ko Tong.
A warrant for his arrest was issued on Saturday.
Thailand's police chief Gen Somyot Poompanmoung said Pajjuban had fled to a "neighbouring country" while local media reports said he was believed to be in Langkawi, where 1,158 illegal immigrants were offloaded a few days ago.
A seizure of assets worth around 10 million baht (S$395,200) belonging to Pajjuban, is also underway by the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO), he said.
The board of AMLO's executives later decided to seize assets belonging to many other people suspected of running the Rohingya trafficking ring, totalling 189 items worth around 75 million baht.
An inspection of 19 unmarked graves on Pajjuban's personal island of Rat Yai off Satun province is also underway.
Satun governor Dejrat Simsiri, who took part in yesterday's inspection of the island, said later that the bodies in the graves were Thai, after their identities were confirmed by relatives.
Locals in Satun said Rat Yai island was renowned for being off limits.
"If any boats came near the island, speedboats would come and tell them to leave," a local resident said, requesting anonymity.
It has been speculated that many immigrants may have been placed on the island before being brought to Langkawi and dispersed throughout Malaysia.
Police have also raided 15 locations in Satun and seized a number of assets belonging to Pajjuban, including two cars and a handgun.
They also found three Mercedes vehicles, a 28-room hotel and two boats. The AMLO is finding out whether they had all been bought lawfully by Pajjuban.
A senior police commander, Pol Maj-General Paween Phongsirin, said the police were obtaining another warrant for a key suspect, in addition to 51 others, including Pajjuban.
He said the police were focusing on protecting a number of witnesses and Rohingya victims who volunteered useful information leading to the issue of the warrants.
More than 8,000 migrants are reportedly adrift off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, posing a potential humanitarian crisis for the region's governments.
"Thailand has effectively stopped smuggling through its borders," said Jeffrey Labovitz, the International Organisation for Migration's chief of mission in Thailand.
"As a result, we think that there are (more than 8,000) people stranded offshore" in the region.
Economic migrants from Bangladesh and Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar often made their way through Thailand seeking opportunities in Malaysia and Indonesia.
They are frequently targeted for exploitation by human traffickers.