BANGKOK: A Thai boat captain has been charged with smuggling 65 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, police said Thursday (Jun 13), after their vessel was shipwrecked off Thailand's southern coast.
The same area was the hub of multi-million-dollar trafficking route, which unravelled in 2015 after the discovery of mass graves of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants along the border with Malaysia.
Police said the boat, which was carrying the stateless Rohingya minority and was found on Tuesday on an island off the coast of Satun province, was captained by Sangkhom Paphan, a Thai from nearby Ranong province.
Police said he was hired to transport the Rohingya to Malaysia and has been "charged with smuggling in illegal immigrants", according to police general Suchart Theerasawat of the National Police Office.
"He was paid 100,000 baht (about US$3,200) by a Myanmar man," Suchart told AFP, adding that authorities were still interrogating him.
Military chief-turned-prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha has instructed agencies "to speed up" investigation on whether the Rohingya found were refugees or illegal labourers, said government spokesman Werachon Sukhondhapatipak.
The 65 people, including women and children, are currently being detained in a police camp in Satun province.
The persecuted Rohingya minority are denied citizenship in Myanmar and face severe restrictions on movement as well as a lack of access to work, healthcare and schools.
It was not immediately clear if the 65 Rohingya discovered were coming from Myanmar or Bangladesh, where more than a million of the minority languish in refugee camps.
More than 740,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in 2017 after a brutal military campaign by the Myanmar army.
United Nations investigators have said the army's violence amounts to "genocide", and have called for the prosecution of Myanmar's top generals.
Within Myanmar tens of thousands of Rohingya are confined in squalid conditions since a previous bout of violence in 2012, driving some to leave by boat for Malaysia in desperation - making them easy prey for human traffickers.
In November, three vessels carrying nearly 100 Rohingya en route to Malaysia were seized by Myanmar authorities, forcing them back to Sittwe.