By Pracha Hariraksapitak
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Friday called for a three-way meeting with neighbors Malaysia and Myanmar to try to resolve a regional human trafficking crisis following the discovery of a mass grave in the country's far south.
Thirty-three bodies, believed to be migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, have been found in shallow graves over the past week in Songkhla province, near the Malaysian border. Three suspected trafficking camps have also been found.
"I have ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to liaise with Malaysia and Myanmar to hold a meeting to resolve this," Prayuth told reporters. "We think this meeting can be held by the end of this month."
Malaysia's foreign ministry declined immediate comment, and Myanmar officials could not be immediately reached.
Police General Aek Angsasnanont, deputy commissioner-general of the Royal Thai Police, said, so far, eight people have been arrested - seven Thais and a Myanmar national - suspected of having links to human trafficking networks.
A "top figure" in a regional trafficking network had been arrested, police added, without providing details.
Thousands of migrants, including Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar and from Bangladesh, brave perilous journeys by sea and land to escape religious and ethnic persecution and in search of work abroad.
They are often trafficked through Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, and taken into the country's jungles, where traffickers demand ransoms to release them or smuggle them across the border to mainly Muslim Malaysia.
"This problem needs to be solved from the starting point which means Bangladesh and Rakhine [state] in Myanmar," said Prayuth.
The United States, which has censured Thailand for failing to act against human trafficking, called on Monday for a speedy and credible inquiry into the discovery of the mass grave.
"We are concerned about the camps and mass graves that Thai authorities have discovered in Thailand, and reports of thousands of additional migrants on land and at sea in boats and ships who may need humanitarian protection and assistance," a U.S. embassy official in Bangkok told Reuters on Friday.
"This is a regional challenge that needs to be addressed regionally, through a coordinated international effort and in accordance with international conventions and maritime law."
(Reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Pracha Hariraksapitak; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)