((This story corrects paragraph three to show prime minister ordered crackdown after discovery of bodies))
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s prime minister said on Friday his government was seriously committed to tackling the illicit trade in people and vowed no letup in its crackdown, announcing June 5 as a “national anti-human trafficking day”.
The United States last year downgraded Thailand to its “Tier 3” list of worst offenders - alongside the likes of Iran and North Korea - in its annual ranking of countries by their counter-trafficking efforts.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered a crackdown on human trafficking in May after the discovery of 33 bodies in shallow graves near the border.
The crackdown led to a surge in the number of boats and refugees destined for Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia being abandoned at sea by trafficking gangs.
The United Nations estimates several thousand are stranded on boats.
Thai authorities have been accused by rights groups of indifference, and sometimes complicity, over the trade in humans, allowing camps run by cross-border people traffickers to thrive.
“The government is showing clear intentions to seriously and efficiently combat and tackle the human trafficking issue,” Prayuth said during an opening ceremony to mark Thailand’s first “anti-trafficking day”.
Prayuth said he was under no illusion about the challenges ahead and the scale of human trafficking, which he said stemmed from poverty and inequality.
“The human trafficking issue is not one that we can solve in a short time span,” he said. “It is a complex issue that has accumulated over a long period of time.”
Thai police say they have issued 84 arrest warrants for human trafficking, apprehending 51 suspects so far, the most notable being a high-ranking Thai army general.
Those trafficked are mainly from impoverished Bangladesh, or members of Myanmar’s mostly stateless Rohingya minority. Myanmar vehemently denies it is the source of the problem.
Prayuth vowed to continue the crackdown and severely punish those profiting from the trade.
“Anyone involved with this issue - whether citizens or government officials, cops, soldiers or whoever – if they make a living off fellow human beings, we will make sure they have no place to stand in society,” Prayuth said.
“We will not let them go, or go easy on them. If they have businesses, we will shut them down.”
Reporting By Kaweewit Kaewjinda and Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Martin Petty and Jeremy Laurence