PADANG BESAR, Thailand (AP) — Police found two more camps Tuesday believed to have held human trafficking victims in southern Thailand — one recently abandoned and the other containing a buried skeleton — days after the grim discovery of 26 bodies at a separate location exposed a thriving human smuggling network in the country.
"We will keep searching, because this means the traffickers are still on the run and taking people with them," said police Maj. Gen. Amphon Buarubporn, the commander of police for Songkla province, who joined dozens of officers in a trek up Khao Kaew mountain followed by reporters and camera crews. Teams of police dismantled the camp's eight huts and shelters made of freshly cut wood, where a cellphone charger and clothing were strewn about in signs of an apparent recent evacuation.
Tuesday's discovery was part of a mission to find survivors — or bodies — that activists say are hidden in the mountains, five days after authorities dug up the 26 corpses at a nearby camp along the Thai-Malaysian border. Authorities say the camps are believed to have been used by a transnational network that smuggled ethnic Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and migrants from Bangladesh and then abused them and held them captive until their families could pay ransoms.
Separately, in Phang Nga province, a skeleton was found in a mangrove forest and was believed to be the remains of an ethnic Rohingya woman, said Gov. Prayoon Rattanasenee, who was led to the location by a Rohingya who said there were more camps in the area.
The coastal province is one of several known entry points used to smuggle Rohingya, who often flee Myanmar in overcrowded boats, into Thailand.
The discoveries have publicly shamed Thailand, which is already under pressure from the United States and the European Union to crack down on human trafficking.
Last June, the U.S. downgraded Thailand and Malaysia to its lowest category — Tier 3 — in an annual assessment of how governments handle human trafficking. Thailand promised action to get off the blacklist, but its reputation suffered more following recent revelations by the AP that some Thai fishing vessels kept men from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos on board as forced labor or slaves.
Thai authorities say they are investigating the complicity of police and local officials in the trafficking network, an alliance that human rights groups say has long fueled the smuggling industry.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gave orders Tuesday for provincial officials at all levels "to scan every inch of their areas" for more detention camps, trafficking victims or signs of collusion with officials, and warned that "those who seek or receive benefits (from human trafficking) will be investigated and punished," according to deputy government spokesman Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd.
Critics say the tough talk and a rush of arrests, VIP visits to the south and media tours to suspected trafficking camps are part of a dog-and-pony show that should not be mistaken for an actual crackdown. In an editorial Tuesday, The Nation newspaper said the government's "pledge to combat human trafficking has been diverted into a public relations exercise."
National police chief Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung ordered the transfer late Monday of more than 15 police and border patrol officers, including a senior commander in southern Thailand he said was suspected of close association with a prime trafficking suspect. They were moved to what Thailand calls "inactive posts" pending an investigation.
Arrest warrants have been issued for five local officials, four of whom are now in custody. Their suspected collusion prompted the Department of Provincial Administration to issue an internal order warning civil servants "not to get involved in any human trafficking activities."
"In addition, every province and every district must raise awareness among the local public to oppose human trafficking and to cooperate with the government in solving the issue," said the order, calling for regional TV and radio stations to make announcements on the subject.
Ethnic Rohingya Muslims are one of the world's most persecuted minorities. They have suffered for decades from state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist, and in the past few years have been targeted by mob attacks that sparked one of the region's biggest exoduses since the Vietnam War.
Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker and video journalist Papitchaya Boonngok in Bangkok contributed to this report.