Organized crime takes root in Bangkok

Local corruption is being aggravated by foreign syndicates taking advantage of loose visa policies.

On a December evening, Bangkok's international airport is crowded with incoming visitors. Swarms of European, Japanese, and North American tourists file through customs into the arrivals hall, where tour operators wait to snap up clients.

But tourists aren't the only ones regularly arriving in the Thai capital en masse. Over the past three years, Bangkok has become a hub for global organized crime syndicates, which use the city to transport drugs, people, and arms to other countries; counterfeit money and documents; and set up international prostitution rings.

"More and more international crime syndicates are basing themselves in Thailand," says Khachadpai Buruspatana, head of Thailand's National Security Council. Crime syndicates "are coming in waves and engaging in prostitution, trafficking of women and children, and drug dealing."

Thai police arrested nearly 2,600 foreigners in the first six months of 2000, which police sources believe is the most foreign nationals they have ever jailed in a half year.

Crime syndicates from Russia to Hong Kong have reason to set up shop here. In an effort to boost tourism, Thailand has adopted loose visa policies, which allow foreign nationals to easily slip in and out. Nationals from 154 countries can enter the country without a visa, or obtain a visa on arrival. "Lawbreaking outlaws hidden among the huge numbers of tourists and businesspeople are putting at risk our national security," the Bangkok Post said in an editorial.

The lingering economic crisis of 1997 also has provided syndicates with a larger pool of impoverished potential local recruits. In the early 1980s, the top 10 percent of Thailand's households earned 17 times more than the bottom 10 percent. After the economic crisis, the gap between the top and bottom had widened to more than 37 times.

Thailand's geographical location is another asset to organized crime, criminologists say. Situated between South and East Asia, Thailand is an ideal transit hub. Singapore-based research institute Strategic Intelligence has estimated that Thailand's domestic illegal economy produces revenues equal to 20 percent of the country's licit Gross National Product. With a vibrant domestic trade in illicit gambling, narcotics, and prostitution, global crime syndicates operating in Thailand have a profitable local market for dumping some of their goods.

A September poll of 4,016 households found that Thais believe corruption among authorities is the third-most-serious problem in the country. Yesterday, Thailand's leading candidate for prime minister in next week's election was indicted for concealing assets with his household staff. Telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra admitted to irregularities but argued his staff was confused about the rules governing asset declarations.

Corruption among the police and a thriving local illegal economy are also making organized crime's work easier. On Nov. 24, Chotta Rajan, an alleged Indian mob boss, escaped from the Bangkok hospital where he was recuperating from gunshot wounds in a room monitored by seven policemen. Although Mr. Rajan reportedly could barely move his legs, police said he gave them the slip, knotted bedsheets together, and lowered himself four stories to the ground. Rajan's lawyer says that the mobster simply paid police 25 million baht ($586,000) to let him escape.

"The rules of the game are, if you have money, you can go free," says the Rev. Joe Maier, a priest who frequently deals with the police in his work in Bangkok's slums.

Thailand, however, is attempting to crack down on transnational crime. The country has tightened visa policies on some foreign nationals, and Mr. Khachadpai of the National Security Council has suggested a radical revamp of the visa rules.

The country also is reforming its legal framework. Last year, Thailand passed its first anti-money-laundering laws, aimed at preventing drug traffickers from investing dirty money in Thai property.

And Thailand recently signed the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which compels ratifying countries to step up efforts to suppress trafficking in people and drugs and other global crimes.

Still, battling the crime syndicates will be difficult. The relatively low wages earned by Thai police aren't enough to discourage them from taking bribes. Some leading politicians are loath to drastically change visa policies, for fear of discouraging tourism, the country's largest earner of foreign exchange in 2000.

What's more, Thailand's borders are becoming more porous, since the kingdom plans to open several new overland links with Laos, Cambodia, and Burma. But Thai police are confident that developing closer links with international authorities will allow them to nab criminals when they attempt to enter the country, and to infiltrate crime syndicates in Bangkok.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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