Thailand sets up 'anti-robbers on motorcycles' unit

Thailand is struggling to cope with a rash of crimes that make it, in the view of some, one of the most violent societies in Asia.

In Bangkok alone, 10 Americans are robbed every week, according to the United States Embassy. There may be more cases, as not all such incidents are reported to consular officials. Other Western embassies say their tourists suffer at a similar rate.

Crime is also directed against Thais, but foreign residents and tourists here have become conspicuous targets. Crimes against tourists often go unpunished because the victims have left the country by the time the case gets to court. The accused goes free because of lack of direct evidence.

To overcome that difficulty the Thais are trying to speed up the courts' handling of such cases. The police have just established two new units to deal with the spurt in theft: ''the anti-robbers on motorcycles'' unit and the ''anti-house robbers'' center.

There are many reasons for this prevalence of crime: They include economic recession and inflation, as well as high unemployment among the young. A breakdown of traditional values and large numbers of drug addicts also play a part.

Most experts say the availibility of guns, including military weapons, is the most immediate cause. Many Thais are permitted by law to carry guns for their own protection, or to safeguard the security of their workplaces. Others wanting a gun have no difficulty buying the weapons of their choice. Licensed gun dealers fill one city street; almost anything short of a howitzer can be purchased there.

It is a common sight to see men dining out at night with a pistol barely concealed in their trousers. A glance into a woman's handbag sometimes reveals a pistol or knife.

So far, efforts to toughen gun controls, particularly on military weapons, have had little effect. Politicians and others in authority say that a mandatory death sentence for those carrying weapons illegally, such as that in force in neighboring Malaysia, would not be appropriate in Buddhist Thailand.

So people who know their way around take their own precautions. For example, they never wear rich-looking watches or jewelery when they are out and about. Cruising motorcyclists are adept at whipping off watches and necklaces from pedestrians or even through the open windows of taxis.

Handbag snatches and skillful pickpocketing are the most frequent of the crimes. Tourists alighting from crowded city buses are often flabbergasted to find everything - money, travelers checks, and passport - has disappeared from their pockets during a short ride.

The only evidence of what has happened is a slit below a pocket in pants, shirt, or jacket. The ''two-knife'' attack is common against tourists wearing wallets attached to belts. One attacker removes the belt with a slash of his knife while his companion holds another knife close to the victim's body.

Outside banks quick snatches of money from depositors or cash drawers occur regularly. The thieves generally press their demands with handguns, army grenades, or knives.

To resist is dangerous. Foreigners have been killed on the streets of Bangkok because they have been slow to hand over their handbags. Tourists are most vulnerable because they often carry all their valuables with them. They are also ignorant of the ways of the local criminals.

Big burglaries involving losses of $10,000 to $30,000 occur in every district of the capital every day. Nobody seems to escape the attentions of the daring cat burglars. One got into the bedroom of the American ambassador last year while he was asleep, despite guards at the gates and inside the residence compund.

Most foreigners live in compounds or apartments where guards control all entrances, but they are no match for burglars who scale the sides of buildings like monkeys going up a tree.

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