KAMPUNG TUALANG, Malaysia - Malaysian authorities on Monday held a sombre mass funeral for 21 suspected ethnic Rohingya found in human-trafficking graves last month, with fellow Muslims praying for the unidentified victims to find a place in heaven.
The remains were what police said were the first of 106 exhumed so far from pits at trafficking camps found in late May in jungles in northern Malaysia along the Thai border, a discovery that laid bare the brutal extent of the region's migrant crisis.
About 100 local villagers offered quiet Muslim prayers as 21 wooden coffins - containing 19 men and two women - were lowered into deep graves cleared by earth-movers at an Islamic graveyard in the northern state of Kedah.
The discovery of camps and graves on both sides of the Thai-Malaysian border and a flood of thousands of starving boat people to Southeast Asian shores in May has highlighted the plight of the Rohingya.
A Muslim minority from Myanmar, they have for years sought to escape what they say is worsening persecution by the country's Buddhist majority.
Fleeing abroad by the thousands each year, they typically put their lives in the hands of often brutal smugglers and traffickers who arrange a perilous passage by sea and land, usually destined for Muslim-majority Malaysia.
"These are innocent Muslims, like brothers and sisters to us. We are really sad that they had to undergo misery and pain. I am sure they will take their rightful place in the heavens above," said Mohamad Yusuf Ali, 57, a local carpenter of Rohingya origin.
Despite not knowing the unidentified victims, scores of Malaysians and Rohingya turned out for the ceremony in the sleepy village of Kampung Tualang despite fasting for the month of Ramadan.
During Ramadan, the faithful avoid consuming food or liquid during daylight hours, offer more prayers, and reflect on what it means to be Muslim.
'Allah will punish the traffickers'
I hope Allah will punish the criminals who were responsible for their deaths. The Rohingya people did not do anything wrong. They were only looking for a better life," Mohamad Yusuf said.
A Malaysian police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the remains of 106 people had been exhumed so far and that authorities were still conducting post-mortems on the majority of them.
Police had earlier said 139 grave sites were found at more than two dozen abandoned jungle camps in the Malaysian state of Perlis. They are yet to offer a final tally of dead, or announce the suspected causes of death.
A government minister said last month that 12 Malaysian police officers were being investigated for possible involvement in the camps, but authorities have since released no new information on their investigations.
Earlier in May, Thai police said seven camps were found on their side, and 33 bodies have been discovered. Fifty-one people have been arrested, including a senior army general, and more are being sought.
Rights groups - which have long accused Malaysian authorities of tolerating abusive and deadly human-trafficking - and the US government have called for a full and transparent investigation.
"The (traffickers) will never have a place in heaven. All for money, they are prepared to beat and kill a human being," Mohamad Noor Abu Bakar, 48, a Rohingya Muslim resident of Malaysia, told AFP.