Thai police have arrested a man suspected to be behind a human trafficking network that ran a jungle camp where dozens of bodies has been found.
Soe Naing, known as Anwar, was detained after authorities found a camp near the Thai-Malaysia border. He was charged with fraud, Police Colonel Anuchon Chamat, deputy commander of police in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, told Reuters.
His arrest, and the uncovering of the camp containing 26 bodies on May 1st, is the first major bust of trade in humans that activists and some Thai officials say has been allowed to flourish for years amid indifference and, sometimes, complicity by Thai authorities.
Anwar denies any involvement in trafficking and says he has been vilified by people who had grudges against him.
"There are many Anwars. I'm also called Anwar. But you have to consider which Anwar is actually a human trafficker," he told Reuters.
Four other people have been arrested for alleged involvement in the network since January. Anuchon said that phone records indicated the operation likely stretched to Malaysia, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
'Tip of the Iceberg'
Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project, says the discovery of the camp is “purely the tip of the iceberg.”
“If they would search forest areas along the Malaysian border, they would find hundreds of bodies,” the director told The Anadolu Agency.
Amy Smith, executive director for Southeast Asia at rights group Fortify Rights, also said the camp is just one of the many that trafficking survivors say are strewn across southern Thailand.
"To our understanding, this is the first mass grave that's been uncovered by Thai authorities. This demonstrates Thailand's level of complacency in conducting proper investigations," she said.
At the camp, rows of bamboo pens sit beneath a tree canopy; makeshift water pipes run nearby. Discarded shoes litter the ground, a sign of what police say was a hurried evacuation just days before police arrived.
28-year-old Bangladeshi national Anuzar, the only survivor in the camp, is in a local hospital where he was interviewed by Phuketwan, a southern Thai news website.
Anuzar said that he had been kidnapped in Cox’s Bazar, a coastal city in southern Bangladesh, and shipped to the camp.
Smugglers told him to contact his family for ransom but he could not reach them.
“We were the people who could not pay the ransom so they kept us and did not really care whether we lived or died,” he said.
He also talked about being beaten and abused as other two police witnesses also recounted allegations of beatings and murders in the camp.
One witness said he saw 17 people bludgeoned to death in the 10 months he was in the camp.
Tens of thousands of migrants make the dangerous sea crossing to southern Thailand, on the way to Malaysia and beyond.
The exodus of Rohingya, described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, has followed deadly communal unrest in western Myanmar's Rakhine state since 2012.
According to the Arakan Project, around 68,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi have left their countries on boats controlled by smugglers since October.