BANGKOK/KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Thailand arrested the suspected kingpin of a human trafficking network on Monday, the latest bust in a crackdown on people smuggling that has triggered a humanitarian crisis on the region’s seas.
The foreign ministers of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia will meet in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday to discuss how to tackle trafficking, after the clampdown led criminals to abandon boats crammed with thousands of migrants rather than risk landing on Thai shores.
Boatloads of Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar have arrived in the waters of Indonesia and Malaysia, and many thousands more migrants remain adrift.
Myanmar blamed neighbors looking for cheap labor for encouraging the flow of illegal migrants after coming under pressure to stop the persecution of Muslims that has led many to flee, only to find themselves victims of traffickers.
The Royal Thai Police said they suspected Patchuban Angchotipan, a former official in the provincial government of the southern Satun province, was the boss of a large human trafficking network.
“In Satun province he is high-level,” said Thai national police chief General Somyot Poompanmuang. “He is the chief. He has many subordinates.”
Patchuban, whose nickname is ‘Kor Tong’, has been charged with a range of offences including human trafficking, smuggling illegal migrant workers into Thailand, detention of others leading to bodily harm and holding people for ransom.
He denies the charges against him.
Thailand ordered a clean-up of suspected traffickers’ camps earlier this month after 33 bodies, believed to be of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, were found in shallow graves near the Malaysian border.
Bangkok is under international pressure to show progress after the United States last year downgraded Thailand and Malaysia to its list of the worst centers of human trafficking.
Police have arrested 30 people over the past two weeks suspected of links to human trafficking networks, said Thai Deputy National Police Chief Lieutenant General Jaktip Chaijinda. Thirty-five others are still on the run.
The United Nations said last week that the deadly pattern of migration across the Bay of Bengal would continue unless Myanmar ended discrimination.
Malaysia, which says it has already taken in 120,000 illegal migrants from Myanmar, prodded Myanmar to deal with the crisis on Sunday and said it may call an emergency meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
But officials from Myanmar were defiant, saying that countries in the region were partly responsible.
“The neighboring countries and regional countries are looking for cheap workers who can be treated like slaves without consideration for their human rights and who can be killed quietly without anybody noticing,” said Zaw Htay, a senior official from the president’s office, in a Facebook post.
“Thailand and Malaysian governments have already admitted that their government officials have complicit in allowing the illegal immigrants to work in their countries.”
Earlier, he told Reuters that while some of the migrants were from Myanmar, “the origin of these boat people is Bangladesh”.
Myanmar terms the Rohingya “Bengalis”, a name most Rohingya reject because it implies they are immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh despite having lived in Myanmar for generations.
Most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine State. Almost 140,000 were displaced in clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
Thai junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has vowed to stamp out human trafficking gangs, making the well-trodden route through Thailand to Malaysia too risky for criminals who prey on Rohingya fleeing Buddhist-majority Myanmar and Bangladeshis looking for better livelihoods abroad.
An estimated 25,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya boarded smugglers’ boats in the first three months of this year, twice as many as in the same period of 2014, the United Nations’ refugee agency has said.
Some 2,500 migrants have landed in Malaysia and Indonesia over the past week, while around 5,000 remain stranded at sea in rickety boats with dwindling supplies of food and water.
Southeast Asian governments have shown little sign of a coordinated response to the crisis. Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have turned back or towed overcrowded migrant boats away from their coastlines, in what the International Organization for Migration has described as “maritime ping-pong with human lives”.
Ministerial talks in Malaysia on Wednesday would focus on
human trafficking and people smuggling in the region, Malaysia’s foreign ministry said in a statement. Thai and Indonesian foreign ministry officials did not immediately comment.
Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak in BANGKOK and Hnin Yadana Zaw and Tim McLaughlin in YANGON; Editing by Simon Webb and Alex Richardson