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What led Thailand to arrest 72 on human-trafficking charges?

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Sakchai Lalit/AP

(Read caption) Senior adviser to the Royal Thai Army Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen, center, arrives at the police headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, June 3, 2015. A senior Thai army officer has turned himself in over his alleged involvement in a human trafficking scandal, marking the first arrest of a military official since the investigation started last month.

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Thirty-six shallow graves were unearthed in the jungles of Thailand in May, locations known to be home to human-trafficking syndicates, leading to a crackdown in Southeast Asia.

As a result of the increased scrutiny, many of the traffickers abandoned boats at sea and camps on land to evade arrest, leaving thousands of stranded refugees. Now, 91 people from Thailand, nine from Myanmar, and four from Bangladesh face charges according to Wanchai Roujanavong, spokesperson for Office of the Attorney General, The Associated Press reported.

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"The investigation showed it is a big syndicate. There were networks that brought them (the migrants) from overseas into the country systematically," said Mr. Roujanavong. "There were a lot of damages. Bodies were found. Senior officials were accused, as well as influential figures. The Office of the Attorney General, therefore, treats it as a very important case."

In the past month, 50 have been arrested and about 50 police officers have been removed from their posts for neglecting their jobs. Among those facing charges of human trafficking, detention, and ransom is Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen, a senior adviser to the Thai army, according to The Guardian. The military leader denies involvement with human trafficking, although he turned himself into police in Bangkok, NPR reported

Thailand is currently in “Tier 3” of the “Trafficking in Persons Report 2014” issued by the United States Department of State. The third tier is reserved for countries that have the worst record in human rights abuses, which also fail to make significant efforts to remedy the issues. The 2014 report notes that, “Thailand is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.”

If a country is placed in the third tier, they may lose bilateral support from the US government including non-humanitarian, non-trade-related assistance, according to the guidelines from the State Department. The arrests in Thailand come days ahead of the US State Department’s release of the 2015 trafficking report, according to anti-human-trafficking organization Human Rights First.

In 2012, Thailand was the 24th largest trading partner of the United States with a combined trade value of $41 billion. Since 2000, combined import and export values between the United States and Thailand have nearly doubled, according to trade values released by the United States Census Bureau.

Human trafficking in Southeast Asia has gained increased attention since May, when thousands of Rohingya (a Muslim minority population located primarily in Myanmar) and Bangladeshis were discovered stranded at sea enduring harsh conditions. Mass graves in Malaysia and Thailand were discovered in May, according to The Christian Science Monitor’s Robert Marquand.

In the 2014 World Justice Project Report, Thailand scored a 0.43/1 on the effectiveness of their criminal justice system, about half of highest-ranked Denmark's score. Last year, the group also indicated that Thailand has worsening human rights issues.