BANGKOK (AP) — A colonel and another high-ranking Thai army officer have been temporarily removed from their posts while they are investigated for suspected involvement in trafficking refugees from Myanmar's Rohingya ethnic minority to a third country, the senior commander for southern Thailand said Tuesday.
More than 800 beleaguered Rohingya were found in raids in Thailand's southern border province of Songkhla this month after they fled sectarian violence in western Myanmar that has killed hundreds of people and displaced some 100,000 more since June.
Thai police arrested eight trafficking suspects after one of the raids and are searching for three others, including an influential local politician. Thai media reported over the weekend that at least two senior military officers were involved in the trafficking network.
Southern region army commander Lt. Gen. Udomchai Thammasarorat told reporters Tuesday that he has set up a committee to probe the claims and that the two officers have been suspended pending the investigation. He said the probe will also determine whether other soldiers are involved in the network.
Earlier, Maj. Gen. Dittaporn Sasasmit, spokesman for Thailand's Internal Security Operations Command, vowed that, "If any army or government officials are found to be involved in human trafficking, they will be prosecuted."
The quick reaction to the charges is unusual, as Thai army officers are rarely subject to prosecution for alleged abuses, and reflects the seriousness of the trafficking allegations. Thailand attracts many refugees from three of its neighboring countries that have much weaker economies, some seeking to stay in Thailand and others heading to third nations.
Thai authorities say the refugees were believed to be heading for Malaysia. They have been charged with illegal entry and their fate is unclear. Human rights groups have called on the Thai government not to repatriate them to Myanmar, where they face wide discrimination.
The probe followed a demand by the army's commander-in-chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who said Monday that he opposes setting up a permanent refugee camp for the Rohingya in Thailand.
Thailand was widely criticized in 2009 when its navy intercepted boats filled with Rohingya and sent them back to the sea. Hundreds are believed to have died when the boats later sank.
The United Nations estimates the Rohingya population in Myanmar at 800,000, but the Myanmar government does not recognize them as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups. Most are denied citizenship and have no passports, though many of their families have lived in the country for generations.
The Muslim Rohingya speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Bangladeshis, with darker skin than most people in Myanmar, which is mostly Buddhist. They are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are heavily discriminated against, but Bangladesh also refuses to accept them as citizens.