Thai police have arrested a man they believe is the key figure behind a brutal human trafficking network that ran a jungle camp where dozens of bodies have been found.
Soe Naing, widely known as Anwar, was detained on Wednesday as authorities closed in on a camp near the Thai-Malaysia border where as many as 400 trafficked migrants, mainly Rohingya and Bangladeshis, were imprisoned for ransom, Police Colonel Anuchon Chamat, deputy commander of police in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, told Reuters.
He was charged with fraud related to his failure to release a trafficked Rohingya after receiving a ransom payment.
His arrest, and the uncovering of the camp containing 26 bodies on Friday, is the first major bust of a trade in humans that activists and some Thai officials say has been allowed to flourish for years amid indifference and, sometimes, complicity by Thai authorities.
"This is huge. He's a big guy, a top guy," Anuchon said.
Anwar denies any involvement in trafficking and says he made a living tapping rubber and selling fried bread. People with grudges against him circulated his photo and accused him of trafficking, he told Reuters in Nakhon Si Thammarat police station on Wednesday.
"There are many Anwars. I'm also called Anwar. But you have to consider which Anwar is actually a human trafficker," he said.
Four other people have been arrested for alleged involvement in the network since January, Anuchon said, adding that phone records indicated the operation likely stretched to Malaysia, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Police are collecting evidence with a view to laying charges against Anwar, a Rohingya living in the southern Thai province of Songkhla, for murder, human trafficking and cross-border criminal activity, said Anuchon. Phone records, financial transactions and witness testimony point to Anwar allegedly playing a central role in the operation, Anuchon said. Police are also collecting DNA evidence from the grave site.
Case documents reviewed by Reuters, as well as interviews with police and witnesses, provide some insight into one of the alleged networks involved in the smuggling of the more than 100,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence and poverty in Myanmar since 2012 - often held at sea and in camps for months as they are shunted from Myanmar to Thailand, and then Malaysia.
Amy Smith, executive director for Southeast Asia at rights group Fortify Rights, said the camp uncovered on Friday was just one of the many that trafficking survivors say are strewn across southern Thailand.
"To our understanding, this is the first mass grave that's been uncovered by Thai authorities. This demonstrates Thailand's level of complacency in conducting proper investigations," she said.
Reuters has previously documented the involvement of some members of Thai security forces in trafficking, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has acknowledged some official complicity.
Stung by being downgraded by the United States to the lowest category on its annual Trafficking in Persons report - citing a lack of enforcement and the involvement of some officials - Thailand's military junta has ordered a crackdown on traffickers and introduced the death penalty in cases where their victims died.
At the camp uncovered on Friday, just a few hundred meters from the Malaysian border, rows of bamboo pens sit beneath a tree canopy; makeshift water pipes run nearby. Discarded shoes litter the ground, a sign of what police say was a hurried evacuation just days before police arrived.
During a visit by a Reuters reporter on Saturday, police and rescue teams could be seen pulling bodies in various stages of decay from the earth.
Two police witnesses who spoke to Reuters recounted allegations of beatings and murders in the camp.
One, a former inmate who helped lead police to the site, said those being held were regularly beaten while on the phone to relatives in order to extract money. Those who couldn't pay, or who crossed the traffickers, were often killed.
The witness, who cannot be identified because he is in police protection, said he saw 17 people bludgeoned to death in the 10 months he was in the camp. "I saw four people beaten to death in the space of two hours," the witness said.
Police said on Sunday that initial forensic examinations of the bodies found at the site showed no signs of violent death, such as bone marks or breakages.
'They're going to kill me'
One of those allegedly murdered was a 25-year-old identified only by his first name, Kasim, whose family had paid 95,000 baht ($2,870) for his release. Instead, hearing that Kasim's uncle had passed information on his detention to authorities, Anwar ordered him killed, the witness said.
Kasim's uncle, Kullya Mei, separately told Reuters the camp guards called him before they killed Kasim, and placed the phone to his nephew's face. "He said: 'They're going to kill me. What did you do?'" Kullya Mei recalled.
The next thing he said he heard was his nephew screaming.
Reuters was unable to independently verify Kullya Mei's account. Anuchon said police were investigating the allegation.
On Jan. 11, police intercepted a convoy with about 100 malnourished Rohingya huddled in trucks in the southern district of Hua Sai, said Anuchon, the police deputy commander. One woman was found dead, another two died later in hospital.
Arrests following that interception yielded phone records that allowed police to piece together some of the alleged network, Anuchon said. Kasim's alleged killing helped yield further evidence, with police saying bank transfer slips showed payments to suspected network members.
The network grossed about 10 million baht ($302,147) a month, said Police Lieutenant Colonel Phongsathorn Kueaseng, an investigator on the case.