Flashback #Star50: Unearthing crimes of the past

Remnants: Wang Kelian was once a hive of activity, but later became a ghost town where the shacks are used as storage space.Remnants: Wang Kelian was once a hive of activity, but later became a ghost town where the shacks are used as storage space.

THEY fled their home country to escape their impoverished lives, hoping for better days ahead after leaving Rakhine.

But some of these Rohingya found themselves deceived by human traffickers who promised them jobs.

As a journalist then, I was among the pressmen staking out the foot of Bukit Wang Burma at Wang Kelian in Perlis in May 2015 when the police exhumed 106 bodies believed to be Rohingya.

Body parts came out in bags. It was a discovery so gruesome that it has remained one of the most horrifying sights I have encountered among all the crime cases I have covered.

The remains were highly decomposed and most were stripped to the bone, some not even intact, making it impossible to determine their gender.

There were also cages made out of thin tree trunks and a layer of barbed wire.

These were the horrific discoveries, alongside detention camps unearthed by the authorities, well hidden in the sleepy town of Wang Kelian, some 30km from Kangar.

The camps were in a “perfect location” in the hills of the Malaysia-Thailand border, which is why they went unnoticed for so long.

Hiking up to where the illegal detention camps were located was no easy feat, with no clear trails and multiple steep sections.

The camp that had the “easiest access” took an hour-and-a-half to reach, even for the fittest person, and was located at more than 400m above sea level.

Overall, the police found 139 graves and 29 camps where there were sentry towers for traffickers to keep watch.

Ops Wawasan Khas involved about 300 VAT69 police commandos and 247 General Operations Force personnel. They combed the 50km Malaysia-Thailand border in Perlis.

The hunt came in the wake of similar camps being discovered by Thai authorities on their side of the border.

That May 2015 assignment will always be etched in my mind. Photographer Zhafaran Nasib and I spent almost a month searching for leads from Satun, the southern province of Thailand, to the Immigration Depot in Belantik, Kedah, that ultimately led us to Wang Kelian.

It was a popular town, mainly among the locals of Wang Kelian and Wang Prachan, Thailand’s side of the border town, due to the document-free crossing up to a radius of 1km from the border.

This free flow leeway was, however, rescinded in April 2015, a month before the discovery of the death camps.

Having spoken to Rohingya workers from several construction sites in different states that I’ve visited, they all shared the same story.

It is a classic modus operandi. They would first pay the “agents” to get on the boat out of the Rakhine state.

They would be brought to another country to work, but not before being locked up in a transit centre to have more money extorted from their families in order to be released.

The kingpin, former Thai lieutenant-general Manas Kongpan, 65, died of a heart attack on June 2 this year at a prison hospital in Bangkok.

News reports said Manas, who was jailed in 2015, was involved in Thailand’s largest human trafficking case.

The Star assistant news editor Arnold Loh, who visited Wang Kelian in June 2019 found that what was once a roaring tourist town had become a ghost town instead.

“Wang Kelian’s rows of quaint shacks still stand, but they are now just store rooms,” he said.

He added that previously, people from both sides of the border would mingle freely and cross that invisible line to meet each other without a fuss.

“You could just show your MyKad and stroll to Wang Prachan in Thailand, where there are plenty of village goods and strange, exotic snacks. The Thais needed to show no documents at all; they just had to walk across to Wang Kelian,” he said.

In the past, he said that these Thais would walk freely into Malaysia to do their shopping.

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