Fifty-three men rescued by authorities were today declared by police in Thailand to be human trafficking victims - a landmark decision that clears the way for a more aggressive approach against human traffickers, and against a new scourge, kidnappers.
Two Thais are being held as possible traffickers.
Late today, a telephone call came from a known trafficker in Malaysia to an activist involved in the rescue of the 53 kidnap victims in Thailand. ''How much do you want for them?'' the caller asked.
The activist rejected the offer. ''I'd rather be good and dead,'' he said.
What makes the case of the 53 men exceptional is that none of them had any desire to leave their homes in Bangladesh to go to Malaysia, which is usually what stateless Rohingya want to do.
Thousands of Rohingya have been driven out of Burma by ethnic cleansing over the past few years.
But in a stunning change of method by the human traffickers, it has emerged that the 53 men rescued on Saturday near Takuapa, north of Phuket, were all kidnapped - abducted by gangs from close to their homes, dumped onto boats, and shipped south from Cox's Bazaar in Bangladesh.
Their families have known nothing about their fates for up to a month.
While the relatives of the 53 men will soon learn that they have been rescued, there were a total of 310 people on the traffickers' boat from Bangladesh - and the fate of the other 257 people on board is not known.
The rescued men say there were seven children and three women among the 310 captives.
Traffickers had given each of the 53 men wristbands of four different colors to denote who would be their ''buyer'' when they reached their destination, either in southern Thailand or across the border in Malaysia.
It's considered likely that most were destined to work as slaves on fishing trawlers. There is a constant demand for workers on fishing boats at present along the Andaman coast, especially in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Unlike the Rohingya who normally flee voluntarily from Burma to Malaysia seeking sanctuary, the men who were declared to be human trafficking victims by police in Takuapa, north of Phuket, late today had all been coerced or beaten before finding themselves on a boat sailing south.
Many are Rohingya who have lived in Bangladesh for years. Others are Bangladeshis. None of them had any desire to leave their homes.
In coming days, NGOs and government officials in Thailand and Bangladesh are expected to try to ask law enforcers along the Andaman Sea coast how kidnappers can operate with such impunity, and why few arrests for human trafficking are ever made.
The 53 kidnap victims, who all left Bangladesh involuntarily, now face a battle to get back to their homes because the Bangladeshi government does not accept returning refugees.
Those who are Bangladeshi citizens may be more welcome.