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PEDANG BESAR, Thailand – Dozens of police and volunteers have exhumed 26 bodies at a mass grave near a suspected human trafficking camp on a hillside deep in a southern Thai jungle, police said on Saturday.
The digging site, in Sadao district in Songkhla province, yielded five bodies on Friday and 21 more on Saturday, all believed to be migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Authorities found three survivors at the camp, two of them children.
“A total of 26 bodies were uncovered – 24 men, one woman and one unknown,” said Police General Jarumporn Suramanee, adding the operation was now completed. There had been estimates of up to 30 bodies buried at the site.
Illegal migrants, many of them Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar and Bangladesh, brave often perilous journeys by sea to escape religious and ethnic persecution and to seek jobs in Malaysia and Thailand, a regional trafficking hub.
At least one more human trafficking camp is thought to be located not far from the graves, said Police Colonel Anuchon Chamat, deputy commander of Nakorn Si Thammarat Provincial Police and a member of the investigation team.
Police General Aek Angsananont, deputy commissioner-general of the Royal Thai Police, told reporters authorities had known about the camp’s existence for a while.
“We heard news about this camp and tried to find it many times but because it was deep jungle, it was very difficult,” he said. He said police believed the deaths were due to “a disagreement within the human trafficking trade.”
Identifying victims could take time as relatives would need to travel from Myanmar and Bangladesh to offer DNA samples for testing and to identify belongings, where possible, said Police General Jarumporn Suramanee.
“There might be a problem that their relatives might not come straightaway,” said the general, who supervised the excavations on Saturday.
The abandoned camp, hidden high on a hill, was strewn with shoes and clothing. It had operated for about a year, police said.
“From the evidence given by witnesses who were in the camp, we believe there was violence here and people died from the violence,” said Jarumporn, without giving further details.
Human Rights Watch called for an independent investigation with U.N. involvement to find out what took place at the site.
“The discovery of these mass graves should shock the Thai government into shutting down the trafficking networks that enrich officials but prey on extremely vulnerable people,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.