Why Thailand still uses discredited bomb detectors

The governments of Thailand and Britain have deemed the GT200 bomb detector unreliable, but the Thai military continues to use it to make arrests in the Muslim south.

Surapan Boonthanom/Reuters
A Thai bomb squad expert examine suspected bombs at the site of a bomb attack in Yala province suspected to be by Muslim militants February 23, 2010. Thai troops use the GT200 bomb detector to search suspects and containers, but British scientists say the scanner is a scam.

A handheld scanner that claims to detect bombs at a distance of 700 meters but has been described by British scientists as a scam continues to stir political controversy in Thailand.

The British-made GT200 scanner has been used for years by Thai troops battling a Muslim-led southern insurgency to check for explosives and locate bombs. But in a recent Thai government test, the scanner failed to detect explosives hidden in 4 out of 5 containers.

The test follows weeks of pressure by domestic critics. A BBC investigation last month into several UK-made portable bomb detectors found no scientific basis for their stated use. In response, the British government banned the export of one such device, the ADE 651 made by ATSC, to security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Britain has warned foreign governments that similar detectors, including the GT200, are unreliable.

(Read here how the Iraqi government spent $850 million on scanners manufactured for about $250 apiece.)

However, Thailand’s military has insisted on keeping the GT200 and publicly defended its use. Its stance has fueled a political backlash over the procurement of hundreds of apparently dud detectors by the military and other security agencies. Opposition lawmakers and newspaper columnists have demanded that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva look into allegations of mark-ups in the price of the detectors, which cost up to $30,000 each.

Untrusted machines

In southern Thailand, where nearly 4,000 people have died since 2004 in a Muslim-led insurgency, soldiers have employed the GT200 to search vehicles, schools, and houses for explosives. Legal rights groups say that suspects have subsequently been detained since 2007 on the basis of positive readings by the device during mass sweeps by soldiers of Muslim villages.

“The people in the south don’t believe in these machines. They don’t trust them,” says Angkhana Neelapaijit, who chairs the Working Group on Justice for Peace, a human rights organization in the southern city of Pattani.

On Feb 22, two soldiers were injured after a 5-kilogram (11-pound) bomb exploded near a market in Pattani, a common insurgent tactic. The bomb was detonated by remote control after soldiers earlier patrolled the area using GT200s and failed to detect the bomb, the Bangkok Post reported.

Thai courts don’t admit GT200 readings as evidence in criminal cases. But the military has used them widely to identify suspects in the south who are then “invited” for questioning under emergency laws, says Sunai Pasuk, a Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch. The group has documented torture and other forms of abuse in military custody.

“All cases against insurgents will need to be reviewed. There must be compensation [for wrongful arrest], at the very least,” he says.

Exporting 'an empty plastic case'

Global Technical, the UK manufacturer, says it exports it to more than 30 countries and denies any problems have risen from its use. A company spokesperson, Heidi Mallace, said that the Thai government’s tests were “not conclusive” and cited supportive Thai military statements. In a written response, she said the company had more than 150 positive reports from its customers, whose identities she declined to reveal.

“If the operators of the device did not believe that the GT200 worked, do you think they would continue using it?” Ms. Mallace said.

Distributors of the GT200, a black plastic box with an antenna on top, claim that it uses magnetism to detect substances ranging from explosives to narcotics to ivory and corpses. An explosives expert, Sidney Alford who examined it for the BBC described it as “an empty plastic case” that had no electronic parts inside. Neither the British military or any other NATO ally has bought the GT200 scanners.

Mr. Abhisit, who took power just over a year ago with military support, has ordered government agencies to discontinue purchases of the GT200 and a similar scanner ordered by the Interior Ministry. But he has muted his criticism of the military and stopped short of ordering a mass recall.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a spokesman for Abhisit, said that soldiers still trust the GT200’s findings. “We tell them to be aware and to use it cautiously,” he told a foreign press briefing.

Unchallenged military spending

Ms. Angkhana said she was in regular contact with bomb disposal officers who disputed the claims of their commanders and were angered by the device’s failings. “Most of the local soldiers know it can’t work and don’t want to use it,” she says.

Political analysts say Abhisit is reluctant to challenge the military as he needs their support to contain street protests by supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The military staged a coup in 2006 to remove Mr. Thaksin and froze $2.3 billion of his family’s assets. The Supreme Court decided Friday to confiscate $1.4 billion of the money.

The military’s budget soared after the coup, and it began purchasing more equipment from overseas, including the GT200. Thai officials have said that more than 700 scanners have been acquired by military and civilian agencies at a total cost of over $20 million. Global Technical said it had sold an estimated 500 devices to Thailand. It denies any bribes were paid.

“No buyers have taken legal action against GT and no clients have canceled their orders,” says Mallace.

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