Thai police have rescued hundreds of Rohingya Muslims from a remote camp in a raid prompted by reports of human trafficking, officials said yesterday.
Police detained 531 men, women and children in Sunday's raid at a camp near the town of Sadao in the southern province of Songkhla, on a well-established route for human smugglers near Thailand's border with Malaysia.
The police said they were following up on a report last month by the South China Morning Post and Reuters that Rohingya were held hostage in camps hidden near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay ransoms to release them. Some were beaten and killed.
The Rohingya are mostly stateless Muslims from Myanmar. Tens of thousands have fled ethnic clashes in Buddhist-majority Myanmar in the past year by boat, and many arrive off southwestern Thailand.
The UN and the United States called for an investigation into reports of a clandestine policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thai immigration detention centres and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea.
"After Reuters gave us information, we ordered an investigation into the camps," said Chatchawan Suksomjit, deputy national police chief. He said they captured three suspected ringleaders at the camp, all of them Thai males.
Police were trying to identify the origins of those detained after the raid, not all of whom were Rohingya, said Chatchawan. "We are interviewing all of them to see if they are victims of human trafficking," he said.
They are being kept at an immigration detention centre in Songkhla.
"We have to interview them and proceed according to Thai immigration laws," he said. "It will depend on whether they want to go back. If they are willing, we will send them back as we have done before."
Last year, Thailand implemented a secretive policy to deport the Rohingya.
These deportations delivered many Rohingya back into the hands of smuggling networks and human traffickers, who in some cases ferried them back to Thailand's secret border camps, reported Reuters.
Thai authorities faced criticism last month over defamation charges brought against an Australian and a Thai journalist for a report alleging military involvement in the people smuggling.
Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian are award-winning correspondents who contribute to the Post.
However, the case relates to an article published by their independent news website Phuketwan in July, quoting the investigation by Reuters, which said that some members of the military were involved in the trafficking of Muslim Rohingya asylum seekers from Myanmar.
Reuters did not receive any criminal complaint about the original article, which was quoted by Phuketwan.
Rights groups and the top UN human-rights official warned the case could have a "chilling effect" on press freedom.