Sunday, March 9, 2008

Take Thailand off the world criminal map

Arms dealer's arrest raises unwelcome questions as to what draws such people to Bangkok

Published on March 10, 2008

Local media and the Thai authorities went over the top with the recent arrest of Russian "merchant of death" Viktor Bout, whose globe-trotting came to an abrupt end in the City of Angels on Thursday when Thai police arrested him at the request of the US government. Bout's career was so notorious that it inspired the Hollywood movie "Lord of War", starring Nicholas Cage. He was not the first and he won't be the last of his kind found in Thailand.

But while the police stick their chests out proudly, the incident also shed unwanted spotlight on Bangkok and raised the question why notorious people like Bout like Bangkok so much.

First there were the international drug dealers, followed by Chinese, Russian and Central Asian prostitutes. It was not so long ago when these foreign working ladies were strolling up and down Soi Nana near the notorious intersection where the nightlife resembled South Africa during the apartheid years: on one side of Sukhumvit were the Africans and Arabs, while on the other was a three-floor packed house of farangs and go-go girls. They all had one thing in common: they were looking for the biggest bang for their baht.

Embarrassed by the presence of streetwalkers, Thai police launched a crackdown on the soi, arresting anyone with blond hair, short skirts and uncomfortable shoes. Some faded back into nearby shop houses and apartments, while others packed up and took their business to Pattaya, Thailand's No 1 Sin City on the beach.

But 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 US didn't ask for him, the Thai police probably wouldn't have moved in on him.

While our law enforcement is notoriously flawed, our national interest in the Cold War also provided a playground for men like Bout to exploit. We turned a blind eye as some in security and intelligence circles armed every group along the border. From Khmer Rouge guerrillas in the east to Burmese rebels in the west, we made sure that these buffers were armed, ready and able to defend our soil. That was as recent as the 1980s.

But sooner or later these benefits outlived their usefulness. The aftermath of this policy is that some of us are stuck with an enormous load of small arms - just like the former Soviet Union in the post-Cold War era.

In a way, Bout's arrest here was a case in which the chicken had come home to roost. And no matter how much the Thai police tried to put on a brave face, the incident was nothing less than us getting a test of our own medicine.

The same short-sighted security policy was also apparent in the 1960s when the government turned a blind eye to the illicit activities of opium warlords in the Golden Triangle in exchange for their support in the anti-Communist effort.

In the 1970s, dope pushers in Bangkok were supplying American GIs with marijuana. In the late 1980s, cocaine made its way onto the streets of Bangkok. The early 1990s marked the height of the African cocaine connection. Hardly a day went by when local Thai dailies didn't have photos of recently arrested Nigerian drug traffickers on their front pages.

The 1990s saw grade-four heroin from clandestine laboratories operated by the Wa in the Golden Triangle flooding the streets of Bangkok, followed by new and improved methamphetamines, known locally as yaa baa, about five years later.

In the late 1990s, a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam operative was building a one-man suicide submarine in Phuket. It was the same type of submarine used in an attack on the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.

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.

The Nation

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