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Thai Raid Exposes Trafficking Ring, Systemic Problems

FILE - Rohingya people from Myanmar, who were rescued from human traffickers, react from inside a communal cell at Songkhla Immigration Detention Centre where they are kept near Thailand's border with Malaysia.

Thai police say they have found 13 Rohingya from neighboring Myanmar (also known as Burma) being held for ransom at a palm plantation.

Authorities say the discovery over the weekend, but announced on Wednesday, revealed a human trafficking ring amid recent accusations of institutionalized complicity with trafficking in Thailand and Myanmar.

Two men were arrested after allegedly demanding $1,500 from each of the families of the 10 men and three women, who left Myanmar's Rakhine state with more than 100 others in May bound for China and Malaysia.

Rampant extortion

Myanmar migrant activist Kyaw Thaung told VOA's Burmese service that such cases of extortion are pervasive.

"Migrants have no money to pay and no food to eat. But they face demand of Thai Baht 1,500 - 2,000 ($46-$52) at the border and the authorities can’t prevent such extortion practiced by armed groups," said Kyaw Thaung.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. demoted Thailand in its annual ranking of anti-trafficking efforts, while Myanmar was spared a similar fate. The country remains on a watch list for the third consecutive year thanks to a waiver because the government has a plan to combat trafficking.

Deep problems

At a Senate hearing on Tuesday, U.S. ambassador-at-large for human trafficking issues Luis CdeBaca accused Thailand of "widespread complicity" in human trafficking. Myanmar has the same problem, he added.

"The government of Burma undertook efforts to improve anti-trafficking response, but some military officials and insurgent militia continue to subject civilians to forced labor and to recruit child soldiers," he said.

Along the border, though, police officials like Major Min Khine say the burden of what's happening in Thailand isn't their responsibility. "Most of the cases are happening in Thai territory and we have no jurisdiction there. But we’re trying to make more arrests. Again, we alone cannot resolve this problem, we have been fighting this as much as we can for three years."

Thai police said Wednesday they anticipate more human trafficking arrests after the weekend raid.

Sectarian violence in Myanmar has forced more than 140,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee their homes in the last two years.

Since 2013, more than 1,700 Rohingya have been arrested in Thailand after their boats ran aground.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Burmese Service.