A woman belonging to Myanmar's Muslim ethnic Rohingya minority has died after allegedly suffocating in a crowded truck carrying scores of suspected trafficking victims through neighboring Thailand.
Thai police intercepted five pick-up trucks traveling through the town of Phang Nga, north of Phuket, Thailand, early Sunday morning and discovered nearly 100 Rohingya on board, including 42 boys and girls under the age of 14.
Provincial police commander Kiattipong Khawsamang told the AFP: "There were a total of 98 Rohingya. Of them, one woman aged around 20 years old died from suffocation while traveling."
Victims told authorities Monday that four members of the group died before making it to Thailand. This was reportedly as a result of malnutrition suffered during the four months that they spent waiting for fishing vessels to transport them across the border.
Authorities suspect that the group of Rohingya had been smuggled from Myanmar into Thailand as part of a human trafficking ring. While three of the truck drivers were able to flee the scene, the other two have since been arrested on suspicion of people smuggling.
"This is our first discovery of a group of Rohingya which suggests that smuggling in this region might have increased in recent years," police captain Somporn Thongcheen told Reuters.
The incident occurred in the wake of another suspected Rohingya trafficking case on January 5, where 53 migrants, the majority of them Rohingya, were also discovered in Phang Nga, a hub where boat people are regularly smuggled through Thailand and onto other parts of the world.
In recent years, reports have emerged suggesting Thai immigration officials are complicit in some cases of migrant smuggling across the border, while human rights group Fortify Rights alleged last year that Myanmar's security forces have also directly profited from the trafficking of Rohingya, earning up to $7,000 per boatload of people transported overseas.
Many of Myanmar's 800,000-strong Rohingya population have been prompted to flee the country because of sectarian unrest and clashes with a majority Buddhist population in the country's western state of Rakhine, where many live in conditions comparable to apartheid.
Hundreds of Rohingya have died in the resulting conflict, although the exact number remains unknown, while at least 140,000 more have been displaced. Myanmar's Buddhist-dominated government has also routinely denied the Rohingya citizenship and chosen to classify them as illegal "Bengali" immigrants instead. As a result, tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees have been forced to cross the border into Thailand to escape persecution and seek asylum.
On Monday, Thailand's deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai held a press conference to announce amendments to Thailand's security laws to help combat human trafficking.
"I can say that the [Thai] government has a strong desire to wipe out the chronic problem of human trafficking and is working harder than ever before," Pramudwinai said.
Changes include raising the minimum age of workers on fishing ships to at least 18, and increasing the maximum fine for trafficking of fisheries workers to 30 million baht ($913,000).
While there appears to be lateral agreement that the government's new regulations will help protect workers in the fisheries industry, some human rights groups have criticized the measures for not going far enough to help other groups like the Rohingya.
"The government has made some progress on human trafficking, but not enough… Rohingya trafficking cases are a concern. Nothing is done about them," human rights lawyer Surapong Kongchantuk, of the Lawyers Council of Thailand, told the Bangkok Post.
The Rohingya victims discovered Sunday are currently residing with local Thai villagers and police. Migrants are typically either sent back to Myanmar or can spend months waiting in shelters before the government issues a decision on where they will be sent.
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