The abandoned sites were discovered on the weekend, escalating a crisis that erupted earlier this month when a Thai crackdown on trafficking networks left thousands of desperate people stranded at sea on rickety boats.
“Based on the size of the graves, and after the area was cleared… we have a clearer indication — single grave, single person,” Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said at this border town.
Malaysia previously said it had discovered 139 grave sites. When asked by AFP if he now believed there were 139 bodies in total, Wan Junaidi said: “Yes.”
Thai authorities acted after discovering some 33 bodies in mass graves in camps in the country’s south, exposing a deadly trade in Muslim Rohingya who are fleeing persecution in Myanmar, as well as Bangladeshis seeking better opportunities abroad.
“This is not only Malaysia‘s problem, (it is) an international problem as people come from Bangladesh and Myanmar,” Wan Junaidi said.
“It is Asean’s problem,” he added, referring to the Southeast Asian grouping that includes Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.
The camps on Malaysia‘s side of the border, which could have been capable of housing hundreds of people, drew allegations that authorities and residents had turned a blind eye to the lucrative business.
White shrouds and camphor
Wan Junaidi said initial investigations showed the bodies were wrapped in shrouds and their resting places marked with wooden sticks. Camphor was also found at the graves.
“It seems like proper burial, the bodies were wrapped in white cloth. It is like the Muslim burial…. some are shallow graves, not all,” he told reporters.
Malaysian officials had repeatedly denied that such grisly sites existed despite warnings from activists.
Wan Junaidi said Malaysian security forces had not been patrolling the area because it was thought to be inaccessible.
Malaysian police commandos began surveying it after the discovery of the graves in Thailand, he said.
Because the site is so rugged, the bodies will likely be recovered from the Thai side, he added.
Since Thailand’s crackdown threw the smuggling routes into disarray, more than 3,500 starving migrants have arrived in Thai, Malaysian and Indonesia, and others are feared still trapped at sea.
Relatively prosperous Malaysia, which has a Muslim majority, has long been a favoured destination for Rohingya, who often travelled to Thailand by boat, then overland to northern Malaysia.
Pressure on Suu Kyi
In an interview published today, the Dalai Lama urged fellow Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to help the Rohingya.
“It’s very sad… I hope Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel laureate, can do something,” the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader told The Australian newspaper.
The Dalai Lama said she must speak up, and that he had already appealed twice to her in person since 2012, when deadly sectarian violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state pitted the Rohingya against local Buddhists.
Observers say the Myanmar opposition leader may be reticent about the Rohingya issue in order to avoid alienating voters among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority ahead of elections slated for November.
Predominantly Muslim Bangladesh meanwhile said it was moving to set up seven special courts across the country to try suspects charged with trafficking.
Bangladesh shares a border with Myanmar along the Bay of Bengal.
A proposal from a Bangledeshi official to relocate thousands of Rohingya from refugee camps to a southern island has drawn criticism.
A Rohingya leader said it would only make life worse for the refugees, who survive on the margins of Bangladesh society.
Wan Junaidi also confirmed that Malaysian police are investigating 12 of their own officers over suspicion of involvement, with two suspected of transporting the migrants.
“We are investigating Rohingya in Malaysia too,” he said.
The United States yesterday backed the investigation, calling for a transparent, credible and expeditious effort and urging authorities to prosecute those responsible. — AFP