Gang extorted in name of Thai royal family

IN ONE of the biggest crackdowns on a "lese-majeste gang" this year, police are investigating a famous fortune-teller and his alleged accomplices over suspicions they demanded sponsorships and bribes, which they claimed to be for the Royal Family.

The newly appointed police spokesman, Pol General Dejnarong Sutticharnbancha, told a press conference yesterday that there were 13 criminal cases related to this gang.

Identified as suspects are fortune-teller Suriyan Sujaritpolwong, better known as Mor Yong, his secretary Jirawong Wattanathewasilp, Pol Major Prakrom Warunprapha, who died in detention on Friday night, and Sukkho Tarmseree. They will face trial in the Military Court on charges of lese majeste, illegal possession of weapons, and having unlicensed radio communication devices and a station.

Lt-General Srivara Ransibrahm-anakul, the acting deputy national police commissioner who heads the investigation team, said it was likely that more suspects would be identified and more arrest warrants issued.

"We are in the process of gathering evidence," he said.

He also pointed out that the legal chief of the military's ruling National Council for Peace and Order, Wijarn Jodtaeng, had lodged most of the complaints against Suriyan's gang with police on Tuesday.

The complaint also implicated Sukkho but it remains unclear as to whether he is already in detention. Police say Sukkho has some ties with Prakrom. Suriyan and Jirawong are now held at a special detention facility at the 11th Army Circle's Infantry Battalion in Bangkok.

Before his arrest, Suriyan had served as an adviser to a subcommittee responsible for holding PR activities for the "Bike for Mom" cycling event in August 16, as well as the "Bike for Dad" event scheduled for December 11.

According to police, Suriyan, Prakrom and Jirawong fraudulently cited the Royal Family in asking for sponsorships from various private firms several times from June until early this month and also sought privileged mobile-phone numbers from the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission since September.

On August 25 and September 3, the suspects also allegedly claimed they represented the Royal Family in handing out "thank you" cards to the private sector.

Police said they had found evidence the suspects had demanded bribes from a supplier of souvenir pins for royal-themed events.

"The suspects asked for money from subsidiaries of Charoen Pokphand Group for making Bike for Mom pins, and sought money from Muang Thai Insurance to make Bike for Dad pins," Srivara said at the press conference.

The sponsorships they received were in millions of baht, according to the ongoing investigation, and the suspects had tried to hide their ill-gotten gains by transferring the assets to their siblings, relatives or people in their close circle. Some of the money was allegedly used to buy a condominium.

According to police, the gang was also found to be in possession of dozens of state-owned vehicles plus three automobiles sponsored by the Canadian Embassy, plus a long list of valuables.

Yesterday's press conference was held particularly to provide information on cases against Suriyan and his accomplices. Also on display at the event were various assets such as luxury wristwatches, guitars, amulets, luxury bags, and jewellery.

Srivara said most items on display were found in Prakrom's possession. Some of the precious items belonged to Pol Lt-General Pongpat Chayapan, a former chief of the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB), who is serving a jail term for lese-majeste offences. "The items were confiscated frm Pongpat and are in military custody. It is investigating how this civilian suspect secured the possessions," he said.

Srivara said Prakrom might have taken away these valuables before soldiers had completed the process of confiscating Pongpat's assets.

"But we will investigate further to determine if there are any irregularities and if anyone should be held responsible. If yes, we will definitely take legal action against wrongdoers," Srivara said.

CIB chief Pol Lt-General Thitiraj Nongharnpitak, the deputy head of the investigation team, said the suspects had tried to destroy information that could be used as evidence against them.

"We are trying to restore and retrieve information," he said in response to a question about the suspects' computers. "We have been using sophisticated techniques."

Prakrom was working for the Technology Crime Suppression Division at the time of his arrest. Criminal proceedings against him have come to a halt because of his death. His alleged accomplices, however, will face further legal actions.