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SATUN, Thailand (Reuters) - After a two-hour trek through swamp and jungle, Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot halts in a trash-strewn clearing near Thailand's remote border with Malaysia.
"This is it," he says, surveying the remains of a deserted camp on a hillside pressed flat by the weight of human bodies.
Just weeks before, says Thatchai, hundreds of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar were held captive here by one of the shadowy gangs who have turned southern Thailand into a human-trafficking superhighway.
With Thatchai's help, Thailand is scrambling to show it is combating the problem. It aims to avoid a downgrade in an influential U.S. State Department annual report that ranks countries on their anti-trafficking efforts.
But a Reuters examination of that effort exposes flaws in how Thailand defines human trafficking, exemplified by its failure to report the lucrative trafficking of thousands of Rohingya confirmed in Reuters investigations published in July and December.
In March, Thailand submitted a 78-page report on its trafficking record for 2013 to the State Department. Thai officials provided a copy to Reuters. In the report, Thailand includes no Rohingya in its tally of trafficked persons.
"We have not found that the Rohingya are victims of human trafficking," the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. "In essence, the Rohingya question is an issue of human smuggling."
The distinction between smuggling and trafficking is critical to Thailand's assertion. Smuggling, done with the consent of those involved, differs from trafficking, the business of trapping people by force or deception into labor or prostitution.
A two-part Reuters investigation in three countries, based on interviews with people smugglers, human traffickers and Rohingya who survived boat voyages from Myanmar, last year showed how the treatment of Rohingya often constituted trafficking. Reporters found that hundreds were held against their will in brutal trafficking camps in the Thai wilderness.
A record 40,000 Rohingya passed through the camps in 2013, according to Chris Lewa, director of Arakan Project, a humanitarian group.
The Rohingya's accelerating exodus is a sign of Muslim desperation in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, also known as Burma. Ethnic and religious tensions simmered during 49 years of military rule. But under the reformist government that took power in March 2011, Myanmar has endured its worst communal bloodshed in generations.
After arriving by boat to Thailand, criminal networks transport Rohingya mainly into neighboring Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country viewed by Rohingya as a haven from persecution. Many are held by guards with guns and beaten until they produce money for passage across the Thai border, usually about $2,000 each - a huge sum for one of the world's most impoverished peoples.
Thailand faces an automatic downgrade to Tier 3, the lowest rank in the U.S. government's Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report, unless it makes "significant efforts" to improve its record, according to the State Department. The agency is expected to release its findings in June.
A Tier 3 designation would put the Southeast Asian country alongside North Korea and the Central African Republic as the world's worst centers of human trafficking, and would expose Thailand to U.S. sanctions.
If Thailand is downgraded, the United States, in practice, is unlikely to sanction the country, one of its oldest treaty allies in Asia. But to be downgraded would be a major embarrassment to Thailand, which is now lobbying hard for a non-permanent position on the United Nations Security Council.
Reuters asked New York-based Human Rights Watch to review the report that Thailand recently submitted to the State Department. The watchdog group, which monitors trafficking and other abuses globally, said it was concerned that two-thirds of the trafficking victims cited in the report were Thai nationals.
"Any examination of trafficking in Thailand shows that migrants from neighboring countries are the ones most trafficked," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director. "Yet Thailand's identification statistics show far more Thais than migrants are found as victims."
He added that the numbers were also flawed due to the absence of Rohingya among the list of trafficking victims. Thailand failed to recognize "the grievous rights abuses the Rohingya suffer in these jungle camps, and the fundamental failures of the Thai government to do much about it."
The State Department said it is examining Thailand's submission. "We have received the information from the Thai government, and it is currently under review," Ambassador at-Large Luis CdeBaca of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons said in a statement to Reuters.
The next TIP Report will appraise Thailand's anti-trafficking efforts in 2013.
That year ended with the State Department and the United Nations calling for investigations into the findings of a December 5 report by Reuters. That article uncovered a secret Thai policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thailand's immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea.
Thailand made "significant progress" in combating human trafficking in 2013, said its foreign ministry, citing data included in the recent 78-page report Bangkok submitted to the State Department.
According to the Thai report, Thailand convicted 225 people for human trafficking in 2013, compared to 49 people in 2012. (According to the State Department, Thailand convicted only 10 people in 2012.)
The report said Thailand identified 1,020 trafficking victims in 2013, compared to 592 in 2012, and almost doubled the government's anti-trafficking budget to 235 million baht ($7.3 million).
It identified victims by nationality, counting 141 people from Myanmar among the victims. But none were Rohingya, who are mostly stateless. The Myanmar government calls the Rohingya illegal "Bengali" migrants from Bangladesh. Most of the 1.1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar's western Rakhine State are denied citizenship.
In January 2013, said the Thai report, more than 400 Rohingya illegal migrants were found in rubber plantations near the Thai-Malay border in Thailand's Songkhla province. Seven Thai suspects were arrested and charged with smuggling and harboring of illegal migrants, and were later convicted.
The Thai report describes this group of Rohingya as being smuggled, not trafficked.
However, the Reuters article in December documented a clandestine Thai policy to remove those Rohingya from immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers and smugglers waiting at sea. Many Rohingya were then ferried back to brutal trafficking camps in Thailand, where some died.
The official Thai report said the government "has taken every effort to suppress the smuggling of Rohingyas over the years and to reduce the risk of Rohingyas being exploited by transnational trafficking syndicates."
"The plight of the Rohingyas who left their homeland is essentially one of people smuggling, not one that is typical of human trafficking," said the report.
Pongthep Thepkanjana, the caretaker deputy prime minister, said he would not speculate on whether Thailand's efforts were enough for an upgrade on the U.S. trafficking rankings.
"We don't do this just to satisfy the United States," Pongthep, who chairs Thailand's national committee to implement anti-trafficking policy, told Reuters. "We do this because trafficking in persons is a bad thing."
The anti-trafficking efforts of Police Major General Thatchai are part of that undertaking.
At the abandoned camp he recently examined, Thatchai said scores of Rohingya were beaten until relatives agreed to pay for their release and onward passage to Malaysia. Other Rohingya have died of abuse or disease in nearby trafficking camps whose locations were revealed by the December 5 Reuters report.
Thatchai took charge of the region's anti-trafficking efforts in October. He has vowed to shut the trafficking camps, break up the gangs and jail their leaders.
"They torture, they extort, they kill," said Thatchai, 46, who speaks in an American accent picked up while earning a doctorate in criminal justice in Texas. "It's too much, isn't it?"
His campaign has freed nearly 900 people from camps and other trafficking sites and unearthed new detail about criminal syndicates in southern Thailand.
Well-oiled Rohingya-smuggling networks are now being used to transport other nationalities in large numbers, said Thatchai. He said he has identified at least six smuggling syndicates in southern Thailand, all run by Thai Muslims.
This year, along with hundreds of Rohingya, he has also detained about 200 illegal migrants from Bangladesh, as well as nearly 300 people claiming to be Turks but believed to be Uighur Muslims from China's restive province of Xinjiang.
Like officials in Bangkok, Thatchai generally characterized the transporting of Rohingya through Thailand as human smuggling, not human trafficking.
At the same time, he said his aim was to disrupt the camps through raids and use testimony from victims to unravel the networks. He hopes to gather enough evidence to convict southern Thailand's two main people-smuggling kingpins on human trafficking charges.
One target lived in Ranong, a Thai port city overlooking Thailand's maritime border with Myanmar. This suspect, Thatchai said, sells Rohingya to the other syndicates. They then resell the Rohingya at marked-up prices to Thai fishing boats, where bonded or slave labor is common, or take them to camps to beat more money from them - usually a sum equivalent to about $2,000.
The Ranong kingpin made about 10 million baht ($310,000) a month this way, alleged Thatchai, and owned dozens of pick-up trucks to move his human cargo.
The second suspect was a leader of a syndicate in the province of Satun. That gang is believed to operate a string of camps along the province's border with Malaysia - including the abandoned camp Reuters visited with Thatchai on March 27.
At least 400 Rohingya, including many women and children, were held at that camp for up to a month, said Thatchai. The Rohingya were guarded by armed men and fed two meals of instant noodles a day.
"Today we have proved that what the victim said is true," Thatchai said after the site visit. "There was a camp. There was torture and kidnapping."
But Thatchai also said he thinks no amount of raids and arrests in Thailand will staunch the flow of Rohingya out of Myanmar's Rakhine State.
Deadly clashes between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists erupted in Buddhist-majority Myanmar in 2012, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless, most of them Rohingya.
Since then, about 80,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar by boat, according to the Arakan Project.
More look set to follow, after attacks by ethnic Rakhine mobs in late March forced foreign aid workers to evacuate the state capital of Sittwe. This has jeopardized the delivery of food and water to tens of thousands of Rohingya.
Amy Sawitta Lefevre reported from Bangkok. Additional reporting by Jason Szep in Washington. Editing by Jason Szep, Bill Tarrant and Michael Williams.