BANGKOK (Reuters) - Dozens of children were among 98 suspected Rohingya trafficking victims from Myanmar discovered in pickup trucks in southern Thailand, police said on Monday, as more checkpoints were set up in the region to combat the trade.
Two Thai drivers suspected of trafficking the Rohingya, a mostly stateless Muslim minority from western Myanmar, were being interrogated, said Police Captain Somporn Thongchee, a deputy inspector for Hua Sai district, where the group was found.
Police intercepted five vehicles, including three pickup trucks, at a checkpoint in Hua Sai district in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, around 700 km (435 miles) from Bangkok on Sunday and discovered dozens of "very thin and tired men, women and children".
Of the group, 42 were boys and girls under the age of 14. One of the Rohingya was dead.
"This is our first discovery of a group of Rohingya which suggests that smuggling in this region might have increased in recent years," said Police Captain Somporn Thongcheen.
They were being held in a government shelter in Hua Sai. If police follow the usual routine, they will be sent back to Myanmar or could languish in a shelter for months before the government decides what to do with them.
Thailand is ranked one of the world's worst centers of human trafficking. It was downgraded to the lowest "Tier 3" status last June on the U.S. State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report for not fully complying with minimum standards for its elimination.
Last week, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said his government would step up measures against human trafficking as the country scrambles to improve its record.
An October Reuters report suggested trafficking routes in Thailand were thriving, with some Rohingya held for ransom by trafficking gangs at jungle camps near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay - usually several thousands dollars - for their release.
Interrogation of the two Thai drivers suggested the trucks were heading for Songkhla, near the Thai-Malaysian border, Somporn said.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar since 2012, when violent clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhist killed hundreds and made about 140,000 homeless.
Authorities in southern Thailand have increased road checkpoints to try to intercept smugglers, said Manit Pianthong, chief of Takua Pa district in Phang Nga province.
"The scale of the smuggling problem in this region is big," said Manit." These road checkpoints are one way of intercepting smugglers."
(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Nick Macfie)