Thailand 'a haven for criminals and fugitives'

A Sri Lankan Tamil guerilla army tries to build a submarine in Phuket.

An Indian mafia don, with a bullet wound inflicted by a rival gang in a shooting in Bangkok, climbs out of the window of his hospital room using ropes and bed sheets, and is spirited away to Cambodia in a waiting van.

Alleged operatives of a Middle Eastern militant group stumble out of a house, wounded and bleeding, after a massive explosion on a quiet afternoon in a middle class enclave in Bangkok.

The incidents point to Thailand as a hive of international criminal activity - and it is. Well known for its laissez faire culture and pliable police, Thailand is "a haven for criminals and fugitives", said an intelligence and security analyst who asked not to be named.

He added: "And as for passport fraud, a lot of people 'lose' their passports; I have to say the probability of having your passport stolen in Thailand is high. There are criminal syndicates working to fleece foreigners.

"Thailand is inexpensive, and there is an open-door policy towards tourists. It is a free-for-all. The organisations come here because they are banned in other countries. The Russian mafia is active in Pattaya and Phuket. The police only react when the top brass tells them to. Otherwise they close an eye, or are themselves involved."

Fake identity cards of all descriptions - from driving licences to press cards to accreditation cards for a whole range of vocations from air crew to students - are available openly on Khao San road, Bangkok's backpacker hub. A Singapore driving licence costs just 800 baht (S$31.30).

At first glance, the fake IDs seem like harmless fun. But they are good enough to work - and can be used to build an identity.

A former Interpol officer, now involved in training enforcement agencies, told The Straits Times he showed a fake Myanmar driving licence obtained in Thailand to a traffic policeman in Yangon - who pronounced it the real thing.

Counterfeiting rackets go beyond ID cards. Thailand has a thriving fake passport racket.

In 2010, Pakistani Muhammad Ather "Tony" Butt, who ran a passport forging ring in the country for 10 years, was arrested in Thailand.

One of the rooms in his Bangkok flat was like a "factory" with high-definition scanners and printers and hundreds of passports, photos and visa stamps, said the Thai investigator who led the bust, Mr Tinawut Slilapat.

Mr Tinawut told the media at the time that Butt chose Thailand as a base because "it is easy to enter and leave and, more importantly, some officials don't regard passport forgery as a serious offence".

"Their attitude is, they are dealing only with foreign passports, but not Thai, so why should (they) worry."

Mr Tinawaut could not be contacted for this article. But a Thai official who works with the country's National Security Council, who asked not to be named, said: "We are aware of it. Even if Thailand is not the target, this creates problems for Thailand."

In January 2012, Thai police seized several tonnes of urea fertiliser and ammonia nitrate that can be used to make bombs and arrested Atris Hussein, who had dual Lebanese and Swedish nationality.

As a major air transport hub, Bangkok also offers easy transit for contraband. Indian intelligence agencies have detected fake rupees printed in Pakistan and routed through Bangkok and Dhaka in Bangladesh to Kathmandu in Nepal.

From there, it is moved across the porous land border into India. From January 2010 to June 2013, Indian enforcement agencies seized about US$17 million (S$22 million) worth of fake rupees.

Thailand's turning into a hub for international crime "began in the 1970s, when Black September (a Palestinian group) took hostages at the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok", recalls security expert Panitan Wattanayagorn of Chulalongkorn University.

In subsequent cases in Thailand, including aircraft hijacks, groups involved were often found to have networks in Bangkok, he said.

"Saturday, this has become more intense because there is more connectivity, there are more tourists, there is more openness.

"But the government is working with almost 20 countries on this, there is a United States Federal Bureau of Investigation centre here, and from time to time there are special operations."

While Prof Panitan acknowledged corruption among local police, he said Thailand's Special Branch and intelligence were "very good on the ground".

"They keep a close watch all the time. The world knows already that Thailand is a hub for this sort of thing, and the National Security Council has formally listed transnational crime as an area of concern."

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