Ranong revealed as longtime hub for the trafficking of Rohingya

    “That’s the place where we intercepted a large boat carrying 295 Rohingya and Bangladeshis, including seven Rohingya traffickers, last November,” said Santaya Kaewsri, the assistant district officer at Kapoe in Ranong, pointing his finger to the Andaman waters between two hills not far from a pier.

    Shamim Ashraf
    The Daily Star
    June 15, 2015 1:00 am

    THE dense mangrove forest on both sides of the road through the Laem Son National Park leading to Bang Ben Bay is indeed intriguing.

    With 15 islands having beaches, coral reefs, mangrove swamps, and a rainforest jungle, the national park in Ranong and Phang Nga not only attracts adventurous tourists but offers a perfect place for traffickers to hold smuggled people for years.

    “That’s the place where we intercepted a large boat carrying 295 Rohingya and Bangladeshis, including seven Rohingya traffickers, last November,” said Santaya Kaewsri, the assistant district officer at Kapoe in Ranong, pointing his finger to the Andaman waters between two hills not far from a pier.

    The mesmerising serenity of the layers of hills hides a dark secret that visitors do not see.

    Santaya, who had earlier taken this correspondent to another location to see the seized boat, claimed most of the people-smuggling incidents took place in Phang Nga. But Ranong is no less infamous than Phang Nga, Songkhla and Satun for ransom businesses that became so lucrative in recent years it created a humanitarian crisis.

    The pattern of Rohingya who fled persecution in their homeland by taking sea voyages in small boats was well noticed after the 2004 tsunami, a Thai official in Ranong said, who requested anonymity.

    “Even though Thailand was not the migrants’ final destination, the traffickers wanted to save money by transporting people to Thailand first on their way to Malaysia due to the cost of gas. They would later move them overland to Malaysia where the Rohingya wanted to seek jobs,” Colonel Suthipong Zhongpakdi, the deputy commander of the Internal Security Operations Command in Ranong told this correspondent during a visit in the last week of May.

    The 2012 riots in Myanmar’s Rakhine State turned the low-key smuggling into an exodus of homeless Rohingya Muslims, making the people smugglers hungrier for cash.

    Indeed, the brisk money later led to the expansion of smuggling syndicates into Bangladesh, where there was already an active network of labour brokers, and the introduction of forced trafficking of people to extort ransoms, experts said.

    According to local fishermen in Ranong, officials have had full knowledge of what has been going on for years.

    “They usually came in the late hours in small groups. They were frequently seen during the past few years,” an employee of Laem Son National Park, who did not want to be named, said through a translator.

    Some traffickers asked the fishermen for directions on how to get to their destinations. Some fishermen played dumb and informed local police, he said.

    “But the police did not show any interest to arrest them because it would add to the burden of the existing refugee crisis,” he said.

    Police would wait for the smuggled people to pass through the border into Malaysia so it was Malaysia’s problem, the park official said.

    The discovery of a mass grave in Songkhla on May 1 revealed to the world the extent of the inhumane treatment of smuggled boat people.

    “Interviews with officials and others make it clear that these brutal networks, with the complicity of government officials in Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia, profit from the desperation and misery of some of the world’s most persecuted and neglected people,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on May 27.

    Thai authorities, under intense pressure to increase their efforts to stop trafficking, were forced to act and issued arrest warrants against 89 people, including officials. The crackdown also coincided with Malaysia beefing up security at its border.

    After the discovery of mass graves and trafficking camps, the international media has written about the involvement of a range of people in the nefarious trade – which includes businessmen, law enforcers and politicians.

    Talking about this, the deputy commander of Ranong’s Internal Security Operations Command said: “We know some officers are involved. The officials found guilty will definitely face punishment for their crimes … but those who can not be charged for lack of solid evidence will be sent to military camps for an attitude adjustment.”

    As of Friday, 55 of those facing arrest warrants were in custody in Thailand.

    Guards on boats Arakanese

    While the involvement of local politicians did not surprise many, the alleged involvement of Lt-General Manas Kongpaen, a senior adviser to the Army, came as a surprise to many. Facing multiple charges, including trafficking and the detention of people, he surrendered, marking the first arrest of a military official since the investigation started last month.

    The total value of assets belonging to suspects alleged to be involved in human trafficking has reached Bt109 million, according to Thai Anti Money-Laundering Office.

    All the assets of other suspects – Pajjuban Angchotephan, Natthaphat Saengthong, Charnnarong Phromenut and Hard Thodthing – have also been confiscated.

    Meanwhile, after the discovery of mass graves of migrants in the Bukit Wang Burma area in northern Malaysia on May 24, the country’s Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Malaysians were also involved in the clandestine business for a long time.

    Camps had been there for “maybe even five years”, he said, expressing shock about the activities.

    Six routes discovered along the Thai-Malaysian border are believed “rat” trails for human trafficking and goods smuggling, Malaysia’s The Star newspaper reported.

    Nor Mahizan Kasim, chairman of the Kampung Syed Omar Village Development and Security Committee, said the syndicates had used the routes for over a decade.

    Though many Bangladeshi brokers are involved in the trafficking syndicate, Myanmar and Thai nationals play the key role in transporting the victims in most cases, this correspondent learnt.

    Three Bangladeshis, held at the Immigration Detention Centre in Ranong, told The Daily Star on May 26 that guards on boats that took them to Thailand were all “Arakanese”. Arakanese is another name for people from Rakhine State.

    “They understand and can speak Bangla though they are not Bangladeshis,” said Nur Alam, an 18-year-old from Shariatpur Upazila, who was rescued from a camp in Thailand’s Padang Besar area in December 2013.

    After they landed at the jungle camp, another Arakanese broker named Ismail gave him a mobile phone to talk with his family members back home and ask them to hand over Tk2 lakh (Bt86,500) ransom money to one broker named Farukh in Teknaf, Bangladesh.

    “While handing over the money at a Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar [in Bangladesh] my family learnt that Farukh is the brother of Ismail,” he said.

    Commenting on the operation of trafficking boats, Thai officials told The Daily Star that they seized three modified fishing boats that were used to transport the Rohingya and Bangladeshis to Thailand. Two of them belonged to Thai nationals while one belonged to a Myanmar man.

    Souka, the Myanmar captain of a boat seized at Sinhai island in Pakan sub-district of Ranong on January 30, told police that Thai national Channarong Klomklao hired him to transport the smuggled people to Thai coastal areas.

    Seven crew of the boat, who were also from Myanmar, were sent back to their country.

    Meanwhile, the Myanmar authorities earlier held a 53 year-old Thai national who allegedly owned a boat, recently found by the Myanmar navy, crammed with more than 200 migrants.

    SOURCE www.nationmultimedia.com