SADAO, Thailand (Reuters) - Thai police have announced a new campaign against human traffickers, although the officer in charge said hundreds of recently rescued Rohingya boat people could end up back in the clutches of the regional smuggling networks they had escaped from.
After two raids last month freed a total of 636 people, mostly Rohingya, police said they planned to target the trafficking "kingpins" who routinely smuggle humans through southern Thailand to Malaysia with impunity.
Rohingya are mostly stateless Muslims from western Myanmar, where deadly clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012 killed at least 192 people and left 140,000 homeless.
After arriving in Thailand by boat, many Rohingya were held hostage in remote Thai camps near the border with Malaysia until relatives paid ransoms to release them, according to a Reuters investigation published on Dec 5. Some were beaten and killed.
Last month, Thai police said they rescued hundreds of Rohingya Muslims from a remote camp in a raid prompted by the Reuters investigation.
Ten major traffickers operate in southern Thailand, said Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot, a U.S.-educated commander put in charge of the region's anti-trafficking campaign in October.
"This month I'm going to arrest the big guy," he said on Wednesday, referring to a Thai suspected of being a regional kingpin.
The Rohingya rescued in January will be detained and deported according to a policy secretly implemented by Thailand last year but still in force.
These deportations return many Rohingya to smuggling networks and human traffickers, who often take them back to Thailand's border camps.
Thatchai said under the policy, police hire boats to ferry the Rohingya across Thailand's maritime border into Myanmar, where he admitted they are met not by the Myanmar authorities but by unidentified brokers who would then smuggle them to Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Thatchai admitted this process opened the deportees to possible exploitation by human traffickers. But he said this "natural channel" was better than handing over the Rohingya to the Myanmar authorities, who often meted out long jail sentences.
"It's about humanity," he said. "We can't do that. Many are women and children.
Cracking down on major traffickers in Thailand would reduce the chances of Rohingya being held in camps, he said.
The flawed deportation policy is a local response to a regional problem no government seems eager to solve.
Thousands of Rohingya are confined to grim, apartheid-like camps in Myanmar's Rakhine State with little or no access to jobs, schools and healthcare.
These conditions have compelled tens of thousands to flee the state in one of the biggest movements of boat people since the end of the Vietnam War.
Last month, the Myanmar government said the issue of "Bengalis," as it calls Rohingya, was an internal matter which would not be discussed at meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional bloc Myanmar will chair through 2014.
Thailand is stepping up its anti-trafficking campaign as the U.S. State Department finalizes its next Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report, due in June, which ranks countries on their counter-trafficking performance.
Thailand is Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy and a close U.S. ally, but faces an automatic downgrade to Tier 3, the lowest rank, unless it makes "significant efforts" to improve its record in combating trafficking, the State Department says.
Tier 3 status could make Thailand subject to U.S. sanctions.
Akram, 18, was one of 1,300 Rohingya that police said they detained and deported last year. He escaped a Thai trafficking camp less than three weeks ago with a horror story that underscores the human toll of Thailand's deportation policy.
Akram, who uses only one name, left Rakhine State by boat 16 months ago, hoping to reach Malaysia where many Rohingya already live and work. Instead, he was arrested in Thailand and spent 10 months in an immigration detention center before Thai immigration police put him back on a boat - supposedly to Myanmar.
Instead, the boat turned around at dusk and headed back to Thailand, where Akram and dozens of others were trucked to a camp in a rubber plantation near the Malaysian border.
The Rohingya were forced to squat during the day and sleep in a foetal position at night, and beaten by camp guards if they stood or even stretched, said Akram.
Fed rice gruel twice a day and weakened by chronic diarrhea, Akram soon discovered he was paralyzed.
"People thought I would die," he said. "People died there every day."
In late January, after three months at the camp, the guards and their able-bodied detainees fled at news that police were coming. The raid never happened, but Akram and about 24 others too weak to move were found by local Muslims and taken to a mosque to recuperate.
Akram still cannot walk, and his body is pocked with sores from months of immobility.
Rohingya rescued by police from such brutal conditions are "happy to see us," said police commander Thatchai. Others were less pleased, he conceded, since they had already paid smugglers thousands of dollars for passage to Malaysia.
Additional reporting by Pairat Temphairojana. Editing by Jason Szep and Raju Gopalakrishnan