BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Friday called for a three-way meeting with neighbors Malaysia and Myanmar to try to resolve a regional human trafficking crisis following the discovery of a mass grave in the country’s far south.
Thirty-three bodies, believed to be migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, have been found in shallow graves over the past week in Songkhla province, near the Malaysian border. Three suspected trafficking camps have also been found.
“I have ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to liaise with Malaysia and Myanmar to hold a meeting to resolve this,” Prayuth told reporters. “We think this meeting can be held by the end of this month.”
More than 100 suspected Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been found in Songkhla, police said on Friday.
The 111 migrants had been left alone in the jungle after suspected human traffickers who brought them into the country fled.
Earlier on Friday, police General Aek Angsananont, deputy commissioner-general of the Royal Thai Police, said eight people had been arrested, including seven Thais and a Myanmar national, suspected of having links to human trafficking networks.
A “top figure” in a regional trafficking network had been arrested, police added, without providing details.
An estimated 25,000 Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis boarded people-smugglers’ boats in the first three months of the year, double the number a year earlier, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday.
The migrants brave perilous journeys to escape religious and ethnic persecution and poverty. The UNHCR estimated that 300 people died at sea in the first quarter of 2015 due to starvation, dehydration and abuse by boat crews.
They are often trafficked through Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, and taken into the country’s jungles, where traffickers demand ransom to release them or smuggle them across the border to mainly Muslim Malaysia.
In his weekly televised speech to the nation late on Friday, Prayuth acknowledged the complicity of officials in the lucrative human smuggling trade, and vowed to stamp it out.
“The whole system will be overhauled ... individuals involved will be brought to justice,” Prayuth said.
Myanmar’s permanent secretary at the Ministry of Immigration, Myint Kyaing, said Myanmar had not yet been contacted about the meeting.
“I think we would be interested to take part in that meeting if they officially invited us,” said Win Naing Tun, chief of Myanmar’s anti-human trafficking police.
Malaysia’s foreign ministry spokesman had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters.
The United States, which has censured Thailand for failing to act against human trafficking, called on Monday for a speedy and credible inquiry into the discovery of the mass grave.
(Corrects title of Myanmar anti-trafficking official)
Reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Additional reporting by Pairat Temphairojana in BANGKOK, Aung Hla Tun in YANGON Praveen Menon in KUALA LUMPUR and Tom Miles in GENEVA; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Jeremy Laurence, Nick Macfie and Mike Collett-White