New Details on Rohingya Case Reveal Hope and Horrors on Thailand’s Counter-Trafficking Front

Mass Kidnappings and Burials Exposed by Technology and Cooperation

May 5, Bangkok -- Members of an international criminal syndicate trafficking Rohingyas into Thailand and Malaysia were detected and caught through unprecedented cooperation among police and NGOs, as well as the effective use of telephone forensics technology.  New details on the widening case demonstrate the need for a strong regional cross border trafficking enforcement network involving both governments and NGOs.

Freeland Foundation was contacted by Thai Police in Nakon Srithammarat in mid January to provide technical assistance with analyzing telephones seized from suspected traffickers.  The request followed the police’s discovery of a clever and systematic kidnapping scheme targeting Rohingyas in Myanmar. 

Detectives learned that traffickers were sending a large boat into Myanmar waters each month near Sittwe city.  There, syndicate representatives would go on land and recruit 300-400 Rohingyas in Rakhine Province, promising jobs and convincing them to board the boat to Thailand.   Once the boat was full, it would drive to the port of Rangong, Thailand, where trucks controlled by the traffickers would load up the Rohingyas and drive them overland to Songhkla in southern Thailand where they would be put up in large safe-houses under guard. 

Soon after their arrival in the safe-houses –essentially detention camps--, the Rohingyas would be asked if they had relatives or friends in Thailand or not. Those who said yes were put into section “1”, while those who had no friends or relatives in the country were put into section “2”. Section 1 members would then be told to telephone their friends or relatives and ask them for the equivalent of $3,000 or more/person in exchange for their freedom.  The traffickers would eventually accept $2,000/person in select negotiations.  Victims held in Section 2 would eventually be moved to the Malaysian border where they were sold to Malaysian farmers for $1,000/person. 

Banking information indicates this was a multi-million dollar operation.  Victims held for long periods of time were prone to sickness and allegedly beatings, leading some to die.  They were buried instead of being reported to hospitals or authorities.  Freeland is currently working with Police to help get relatives of the victims from Myanmar to Thailand to confirm victim identities and to help repatriate them.

Between January and March, Freeland helped police analyze numbers extracted from the traffickers’ phones.  Using the telephone data, police were then able to generate an “i-2 telephone link chart”, allowing detectives to narrow their investigation.  They used the phone data to eventually focus in on Myanmar citizen Soe Naing Anwar and several of his Thai connections.  Today Thai Police announced the arrest of Anwar, as well as two politicians from the south of Thailand.

“What is impressive about this case is that it started with local police –not specialized federal cops—and these local police reached out immediately for technical assistance and cooperation, which led to quick progress,” remarked Steven Galster, Director of Freeland.  Hua Sai and Nakhon Srithamarat police initiated the case, and police from Regions 8 and 9 cooperated throughout. 

“While a lot has been said about Thailand’s performance battling human trafficking, this case demonstrates their capacity to take on transnational syndicates when they want to, and the ability to admit to past mistakes,” he added, referring to past denials about Rohingyas being trafficked into Thailand.  “We should all applaud Thailand for discovering and stopping this horror and encourage them to do more of the same.”

Freeland encourages the Thai Government to widen the Rohingya investigation using telephone and banking data to identify each person and company that was involved and profited from this human trafficking operation, which dates back at least three years and possibly up to five.  It appears that businesses in Malaysia were among those that also benefited from Rohingya slave labor.

Freeland is part of a counter-trafficking alliance called “Liberty Alliance”, made up of other NGOs, including Exodus Road and Liberty Asia.  Exodus provided financial support for the digital forensics technology.  Liberty Alliance is in talks with the Government of Thailand and ASEAN to strengthen a regional trafficking enforcement network.