Malaysian police forensic teams, digging with hoes and shovels, began on Tuesday to pull out bodies from shallow graves found in abandoned jungle camps, where it is thought hundreds of victims of human traffickers may be buried.
The Malaysian government said it was investigating whether local forestry officials were involved with the people-smuggling gangs believed responsible for nearly 140 such graves discovered around grim camps along the border with Thailand.
The dense forests of southern Thailand and northern Malaysia have been a major stop-off point for smugglers bringing people to Southeast Asia by boat from Myanmar, most of them Rohingya Muslims who say they are fleeing persecution, and Bangladesh.
Authorities took a group of journalists to one of the camps, an hour’s walk from the nearest road, where a witness saw the first body removed on Tuesday afternoon.
Malaysian police said on Monday they had found 139 graves, some containing more than one body, around 28 camps scattered along a 50 km stretch of the border in the northern state of Perlis.
Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said in Geneva that their representative in the region “predicts hundreds more (bodies) will be found in the days to come”.
The discoveries followed the uncovering of similar graves on the Thai side of the border at the beginning of May. The find led to a crackdown on the camps by Thai authorities, after which traffickers abandoned thousands of migrants in overloaded boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
“We don’t know if there is a link between the Thai camps and Malaysia camps,” said Phuttichart Ekachan, deputy chief of Thailand’s Provincial Police Region 9.
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims are ferried by traffickers through southern Thailand each year, and in recent years it has been common for them to be held in remote camps along the border with Malaysia until a ransom is paid for their freedom.
The IOM’s Millman said, “If an individual’s family did not pay, those staying long in the camps were tortured, beaten and deprived of food.”
A Malaysian police officer guards an abandoned people-smuggling camp found in Wang Burma outside Wang Kelian, Malaysia, on Tuesday. Experts expect that hundreds of bodies will be found in such camps. Joshua Paul / Associated Press
(China Daily 05/28/2015 page11)