Monday, January 21, 2013

Thai army officers linked to Rohingya trafficking

Monday, 21 January 2013 17:00 THE BANGKOK POST

Army officers from Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) are alleged to be involved in the smuggling of Rohingya migrants into Thailand, a police investigation has found.

Migrants thought to be from Burma's Rohingya community are pictured on January 16, 2013, at a detention center in southern Thailand after they were rounded up in raids on hidden camps in the Thai south. (Photo: AFP)

Army commander-in-chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has confirmed the officers' involvement to the Bangkok Post Sunday.

A high-ranking police source involved in the case said the investigation found the trafficking of Rohingya migrants—mostly from Burma's Rakhine state—to Malaysia via the Thai southern town of Songkhla had been going on for several years and was under the control of some military officers with ranks from major to colonel.

The source said the officers had connections with Burmese people in Thailand who had associates in Burma working as labour brokers. They were smuggling the Rohingya migrants in by boat.

On arrival in Thailand, the Rohingya were taken by truck to Songkhla and hidden in a forest.

"Sometimes they even used military trucks to transport these Rohingya migrants," said the police officer.

Sometimes local police stopped the trucks to check them. Soon after, they would get a phone call from someone who claimed to be a senior military officer seeking to release the trucks.

The source said the raid on a rubber plantation in Ban Chaikhuan Thungmaiduan, in tambon Padang Besar of Sadao district on the Thailand-Malaysia border, where 397 Rohingya migrants were packed into a makeshift shelter, could have occurred because of a conflict among the army officers.

The rubber plantation is owned by a former deputy mayor of Padang Besar municipality, Prasit Lemlae, who is still at large after being sought on charges of trafficking.

The police source said immigration police were tipped off by military officers about the smuggled Rohingya in Mr Prasit's plantation.

Gen Prayuth acknowledged the involvement of Isoc army officers in the Rohingya smuggling.

"Now we are investigating the issue and we will dig them out," the army chief said. "They are bad army officers and need to be eradicated."

Isoc spokesman Ditthaporn Sasisamit said the command has not received information about the issue from police. However it will cooperate with police to take action against the officers.

Songkhla Governor Grisada Boonrach threatened to take disciplinary and legal action against district chiefs and other local officials found to be involved in the smuggling of Rohingya migrants into the country.

But so far no evidence had emerged to link them to the trafficking.

Mr Grisada said he was more concerned with the health of the Rohingya and had asked hospitals in the province to assign medical staff to provide them with medical checkups and care.

At least 949 Rohingya have been detained in Songkhla, Narathiwat, Trang, Pattani and Phangnga during the past couple of weeks after they attempted to pass through Thailand into Malaysia.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a Thai specialist with ASEAN, yesterday [January 19] urged the government to cooperate with ASEAN member countries plus India and Bangladesh to find a solution to the Rohingya problem.

It had been proved that about 900 of the migrants currently being detained were linked to a human trafficking syndicate.

The syndicate members must be prosecuted under Thai law, said Mr Panitan, an international relations lecturer at Chulalongkorn University.

Thailand alone does not have the capability to either transfer the Rohingya migrants to a third country or to stop them from migrating illegally through Thailand to other countries, he said.

This article originally appeared in The Bangkok Post on January 20, 2013.
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