Saturday, March 15, 2008

Not everyone in this city is an angel

Thai Takes

WITH exotic Bangkok as the setting, the US-led arms sting had a plot that imitated a Hollywood thriller.

Victor Bout, a 41-year-old Russian businessman who inspired the character Nicholas Cage played in the 2005 film Lord of War, was closing a deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in a five-star hotel.

The Colombian rebels turned out to be agents from the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, and Bout, one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers, found himself taken into custody on March 6.

Bout, Chhota Rajan and Kumaran Padmanadan, what do they have in common? All were arrested in the City of Angels.

In 2002, Indian underworld don Chhota Rajan was shot in his Bangkok apartment.

And in a scene that could be inspired by a Bollywood movie, the wounded gangster, held in a Bangkok private hospital, escaped by climbing out the window using knotted bed sheets.

On Sept 10, 2007, Kumaran – or KP, the chief procurer of arms of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – was believed by many, including the Sri Lankan government, to have been arrested in Bangkok.

However, while in Thai custody KP allegedly “disappeared”.

Why does Bangkok attract criminals such as Victor Bout?

“Easy to blend in (the large Bangkok population helps), easy access to transferring money and finding accommodation, cheap cost of living and good transit hub,” reasoned Bangkok Pundit, an anonymous blogger who comments on Thai politics and the insurgency in southern Thailand in

“People base themselves in Bangkok for its friendly local environment (more importantly, questions are not asked) and access to others in their local community,” explained the blogger in an email.

(This is because of the large number of tourists, leading to a sort of multiplier effect – once you have criminals here, and others see it is good, more and more come ad infinitum).

“Bangkok is a logistics centre and air hub, there is widespread corruption, there are many ways to get out of the country, and it is a centre for counterfeit currency and fake passports,” an analyst familiar with security issues and intelligence circles told The Straits Times.

“Thailand is a laissez faire country with many land and sea borders. For a price, you can do a deal, so long as you don’t touch the locals or harm the country. It’s a haven.”

In an editorial on Monday, The Nation wrote “... it’s not difficult to figure out why men such as Bout, along with international freedom fighters, terrorists and smugglers of drugs and people have a tendency to fall in love with the splendour of Bangkok.

“After all, we have lax financial regulations, dubious immigration regulations and plenty of outlets for top mafia bosses to lie low and be entertained in all sorts of ways.

“Too often, Thai officials turn a blind eye to their activities until pressure from some foreign government becomes unbearable. Bout is a case in point. If the United States didn’t ask for him, the Thai police probably wouldn’t have moved in on him.”

The Nation continued: “While it is easy to blame foreigners for putting Bangkok on the international map as a major destination for criminals, the Thai government is not entirely blameless.

“We need to overhaul the entire system, starting with immigration to the police officers on the street, as well as strengthen the entire justice system to ensure that enforcement is applied uniformly across the board.”

On whether stereotyping Bangkok as Asean’s criminal capital was unfair as other cities such as Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta or Singapore also have their fair share of visitors with criminal links, Bangkok Pundit, whose previous job had a great level of interaction with those who got into “trouble”, said no.

“Thailand has a greater number than almost any other country. You have people working as drug couriers, escorts for people smuggling gangs, and document forgery including credit cards and travellers cheques.”

In its editorial on Bout, who is also known as Merchant of Death, The Nation wrote: “He was not the first and he won’t be the last of his kind found in Thailand.”

(Published in The Star on March 15, 2008)