Thailand's darkest secret surfaces
ONE afternoon in October, in the watery no-man's land between Thailand and Myanmar, Muhammad Ismail vanished.
Thai immigration officials said he was being deported to Myanmar. In fact, they sold the 23-year-old, and hundreds of other Rohingya Muslims, to human traffickers, who then spirited them into brutal jungle camps.
As thousands of Rohingya flee Myanmar to escape religious persecution, a Reuters investigation has uncovered a clandestine policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thailand's immigration detention centres and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea.
The Rohingya are then transported across southern Thailand and held hostage in a series of camps hidden near the border with Malaysia, until relatives pay thousands of dollars to have them released. Reporters located three such camps - two based on the testimony of Rohingya held there, and a third by trekking to the site, heavily guarded, near a village called Baan Klong Tor.
Thousands of Rohingya have passed through this tropical gulag. An untold number have died there. Some have been murdered by camp guards or have perished from dehydration or disease, survivors said in interviews.
The Royal Thai Police acknowledged, for the first time, a covert policy called "option two" that relies on established human-smuggling networks to rid Thailand of Rohingya detainees.
Ismail was one of five Rohingya who said that Thai immigration officials had sold him outright or aided in their sale to human traffickers.
"It seemed so official at first," said Ismail, a wiry farmer with a long narrow face and tight curly hair.
"They took our photographs. They took our fingerprints. And then, once in the boats, about 20 minutes out at sea, we were told we had been sold."
Ismail said he ended up in a camp in southern Thailand. So did Bozor Mohamed, a Rohingya whose frail body makes him seem younger than his 21 years. The camp was guarded by men with guns and clubs, said Mohamed, and at least one person died every day due to dehydration or disease. Some detainees used crutches because their muscles had atrophied.
In an interview, the former rice farmer massaged his withered legs and said: "I used to be a strong man."
Mohamed and others say they endured hunger, filth and multiple beatings. His elbow and back are scarred from what he said were beatings administered by his captors in Thailand while he telephoned his brother-in-law in Malaysia, begging him to pay the US$2,000 (S$2,500) ransom they demanded.
What ultimately happens to Rohingya who can't buy their freedom remains unclear.
A Thai-based smuggler said some are sold to shipping companies and farms as manual labourers for 5,000 to 50,000 baht each, or S$194 to S$1,940.
The smuggler said: "Prices vary according to their skills."
Ismail eventually escaped from the traffickers' camp, and met a Myanmar man who promised to spirit him into Malaysia for 8,000 baht.
The Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group based in Thailand, says it has interviewed scores of Rohingya who have passed through the Thai camps and into Malaysia. Many Rohingya who cannot pay end up as cooks or guards at the camps, said Mr Chris Lewa, Arakan Project's director.
Presented with the findings of this report, Thailand's second-highest-ranking policeman made some startling admissions.
Thai officials might have profited from Rohingya smuggling in the past, said Major-General Chatchawal Suksomjit, deputy commissioner-general of the Royal Thai Police. He also confirmed the existence of illegal camps in southern Thailand, which he called "holding bays".
The United Nations and the United States called on Friday for an investigation into the allegations.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who chairs a government committee on human trafficking, declined to comment on the findings.
She said: "The (foreign) ministry will liaise with the US and the UN to help with any investigation they need."