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Thailand human trafficking probe targets corrupt officials

Thai national police head says a powerful mayor has been arrested and more than 50 police officers have been stood down pending the outcome of a probe in one of the country’s biggest ever human-trafficking scandals.

Police head General Somyot Poompanmoung identified Padang Besar's mayor, Banjong Pongphon, as a "key suspect" in the human-trafficking investigation. The probe began a week ago after dozens of bodies were found in a jungle camp in the mountain area of his electorate in southern Thailand.

In a meeting of the country's most senior police officers on Friday, Somyot made startling revelations of police involvement in the human trafficking scandal.

"If you are still neglecting, or involved with, or supporting or benefiting from human-trafficking networks – your heads will roll," Somyot said in a meeting at Bangkok's national police headquarters.

Thai authorities have been long accused by human rights groups of collusion in the trafficking, claims which authorities have long denied.

Eight local officials and police were arrested for their suspected involvement in the trafficking ring, while 50 police were stood down for their posts, pending a probe, Somyot added. Among that figure are officials from anti-trafficking teams as well as immigration and border authorities.

Human-trafficking syndicates use Thailand as a regional transit hub before they are taken to the country's jungles, where traffickers demand the payment of ransom for their release or they are smuggled across the border to Malaysia.

Possible link to Malaysian traffickers

Last Friday authorities discovered 26 bodies in a mass grave near Padang Besar. Following the discovery, officials launched a search across southern Thailand that exposed migrant detention center camps.

Around 54 people, believed to be Rohingya, were discovered in Satun province in southern Thailand, while five others escaped from a smuggling camp, the Migrants Working Group told AFP on Thursday.

Human trafficking is a delicate subject in Thailand ever since the US Department of State downgraded it to the lowest rank in a survey of countries working to eliminate human trafficking last year.

There were also doubts as to whether the trafficking racket had spread beyond the Thai border after Malaysian NGO Tenaganita reported receiving information on migrant workers going missing.

Although Kuala Lumpur officially denied any evidence of Malaysian involvement, anti-trafficking group Freeland Foundation revealed traffickers were demanding around $3,000 (2,660 euros) per migrant as ransom or selling them for $1,000 to work on plantations in Malaysia, where thousands of foreign migrants work as slaves, unable to pay back their recruitment fees.

Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingyas, considered one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world, have been leaving Myanmar in large numbers to look for better economic opportunities and escape religious and ethnic persecution. Many of these are tricked by smugglers and sent to Thailand, Malaysia or even farther to work as laborers.

jlw/kms (epd, AP, Reuters, AFP)

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