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BANGKOK, May 8, 2015:

Thailand’s police chief announced the arrest of a powerful mayor on Friday and said 50 police officers are under investigation in a widening human trafficking scandal spanning four Asian countries.

At an urgently called meeting of senior police from around Thailand, police chief Gen Somyot Poompanmoung delivered the strongest public admission yet of police involvement in trafficking syndicates that use Thailand as a regional transit hub.

Human rights groups have long accused Thai authorities of collusion in the trafficking industry but the claims were routinely denied by police.

“If you are still neglecting, or involved with, or supporting or benefiting from human-trafficking networks — your heads will roll,” Somyot told the meeting at Bangkok’s national police headquarters.

Last Friday, police unearthed two dozen bodies from shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand, a grim discovery that has since exposed a network of jungle camps run by traffickers who allegedly held migrants captive while they extorted ransoms from their families.

The discoveries have embarrassed Thailand, which is already under pressure from the United States and the European Union to crack down on human trafficking both on land and in its fishing fleets.

Authorities said they have known for years that the area on the Thai-Malaysia border was used to smuggle Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority in neighbouring Myanmar, as well as Bangladeshis and other migrants, to third countries including Malaysia, which is predominantly Muslim.

Many have reacted with horror but not surprise, including international human rights groups that have called for an independent outside investigation because of the alleged involvement of Thai authorities.

In an editorial Friday titled “Take Down the Traffickers,” the Bangkok Post said the arrests confirm “long-held public suspicions of government officials’ collusion with trafficking networks.”

A swift crackdown has included the arrests of eight people — mostly local officials and police — for suspected involvement in the syndicates. Among them was Friday’s arrest of the prominent local mayor of Padang Besar, the sub-district of southern Songkla province where 26 bodies were exhumed a week earlier.

Somyot called mayor Banjong Pongphon a “key suspect” in the probe and said the politician, who has been in office over a decade, “wielded great influence” in the region.

He faces charges of committing human trafficking, providing assistance for illegal aliens entering the country, detention and ransom.

The day before his arrest, Banjong joined a march in Padang Besar that drew hundreds of people and government officials in calls to oppose human trafficking.

Additionally, more than 50 police have been transferred out of their posts pending an investigation, including officers from anti-trafficking units and ones in charge of immigration, marine surveillance and border units in the area of the camps.

“To remove about 50 officers from their posts isn’t something I want to do, but it’s something I have already warned you about,” Somyot said.

“I have warned but you didn’t listen. I have warned but you still did it.”

Somyot acknowledged criticism that in the past police who have been investigated for trafficking and other crimes have gone unpunished but vowed “this time it will be different.”

Members of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority have taken to the sea in greater numbers in recent years to escape violence and state-sanctioned discrimination. Mob attacks in the last three years have left hundreds dead and sparked one of the region’s biggest exoduses since the Vietnam War, which has fuelled a thriving industry for traffickers.

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