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OCTOBER 13, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 40 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Bangkok as Crime Central
Where international gangs are settling scores
By ANTONY DAVIS Bangkok

Seven hitmen barge into an apartment used by a top Indian mafia boss. His sidekick dies in a storm of gunfire while the don and his aide's wife are critically wounded. The raiding party calmly walks out.

Wanted for robbery, extortion and drug dealing, a notorious Pakistani gang leader, gun in hand, dies in a clash with undercover police. They say he was resisting arrest after trying to sell them drugs in a sting operation.

The nefarious activities that various nationalities and ethnic gangs are up to in Thailand:

CHINESE: Smuggling of people; narcotics trafficking; forgery of documents; prostitution; illegal small-arms trade

SOUTH ASIAN: Document forgery; people-smuggling; extortion

KOREAN: Extortion and kidnapping. (The crimes are often fronted by unregistered "tour agencies")

JAPANESE: Movement of Thai women to Japan for prostitution. (The Yakuza syndicates maintain a low profile in Bangkok, however)

EUROPEAN/AUSTRALIAN: Narcotics trafficking; movement of Thai women; child pornography

RUSSIAN: Prostitution; extortion and turf fights over the lucrative Russian tourist market; some illegal small-arms trading

NIGERIAN/WEST AFRICAN: Diamond smuggling (with falsified certificates of origin) into Thailand; narcotics trafficking

Chinese triad members are ambushed by rival mobsters on a main city expressway. As their astounded taxi driver flees, the three men are riddled with bullets and left dead.

Crime-desk snapshots from the mean streets of Bombay, Karachi and Macau? Wrong. Bid welcome instead to laid-back Bangkok, widely regarded as one of Asia's least violent metropolises. This is a city where, traditionally, Thai crime operates Thai-style. The cops know the mobs, the mobs know the rules and everybody tries to get along nicely. Mafia bloodletting is rare, generally confined to squabbling godfathers in the provinces.

Or at least that's how it used to be. Of late, however, full-on mayhem involving hoodlums from around the region is waking up Bangkok residents to a less palatable reality. Over the past decade international organized crime has discovered the attractions of the Thai capital and — if turf wars and spilt blood are any indication — business is flourishing. "Bangkok has become a haven for all sorts of criminals," says a Western specialist in Asian organized crime. "Up to a point that's been accepted, but when they start shooting each other the Thais get upset." The foreign criminal fraternity now embraces Chinese, Taiwanese, South Asians of various stripes, Russians, Koreans, Australians, Europeans, Nigerians and Colombians. "The risks of rapid globalization are not just economic," reflects a foreign law-enforcement official. "If the Thais aren't careful, Bangkok runs the risk of becoming the international crime capital of Asia."

Thailand is a victim of its own virtues. The hospitality and easy-going tolerance that have made the kingdom one of the world's favorite tourist destinations are also appreciated by increasingly globally-minded criminals. They are well aware that local law enforcement is often sporadic and invariably flexible, particularly for those with ready cash or influential friends. Thailand's other main asset-turned-liability is simply its geography. Conveniently wedged between South and East Asia and boasting a well-developed transport and communications infrastructure, the kingdom provides an ideal venue for regional mafia types who want to do a little networking, diversify into the perennially attractive local entertainment scene, or simply avoid some heat back home.

As with self-professed Indian crime boss Chhota Rajan. Wanted in Bombay for crimes that include attempted murder and extortion, he was at the apartment of his Bangkok-based aide Michael d'Souza on Sept. 15 when it was stormed by gunmen. Rajan, 40, was wounded, while d'Souza died.

The mafia don was apparently lying low in the Thai capital to avoid tightened security in Australia, another haunt of his, as well as the hitmen of his sworn rival, Daoud Ibrahim. Ibrahim and Rajan were once Bombay underworld allies but fell out over the 1993 bomb blasts in the Indian financial capital, which Indian police blamed on Ibrahim. Since then, Ibrahim, who Indian authorities believe has links with Pakistani intelligence, has been in self-exile in Dubai and Karachi. But the two have continued to wage a vicious Asiawide gang war. Rajan sees himself as a Hindu patriot battling the renegade Muslim on behalf of the Indian government. As intelligence and diplomatic sources in Bangkok tell it, for the attempted hit against Rajan, a team of seven Ibrahim gunmen (all Pakistanis) flew into the Thai capital, linked up with local support, acquired weapons, and then hoped to disappear into the city's throngs of South Asian tourists. Thai police managed to arrest three Pakistanis and a Thai but the four other Ibrahim hitmen are still on the loose.

South Asians are hardly alone in preying on their own communities. Korean gangsters, using unregistered tour companies as fronts, have achieved an unsavory reputation for the kidnapping and ransom of both resident businessmen and tourists. Earlier this year police discovered the body of a 5-year old Korean boy stuffed in a suitcase, followed two days later by the headless corpse of a Korean women floating in a Bangkok canal. Police believe the two killings are related. Presumably someone had failed to pay up quick enough.

Bangkok was similarly the killing ground of choice for Macau's 14K triad. Last year it was locked in a bitter turf war with the Shui Fong mob over casinos in Macau and Cambodia. The conflict spilled over into Thailand when 14K gunmen executed three Shui Fong members gangland-style on Bangkok's airport expressway. Since the harsh 1950s suppression of Chinese secret societies in Bangkok's Chinatown by military strongman Phibun Songkram, the triads have never enjoyed a power base in Thailand. But that has not prevented a recent influx of Hong Kong and Taiwanese gangsters looking to diversify business into Thailand, and bringing their squabbles with them.

Thai authorities are increasingly worried about the pummeling their country's image is taking. Last week the National Security Council, chaired by Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, discussed tightening the kingdom's tourist-friendly visa regime, which allows nationals of 154 countries visa-free entry or a visa on arrival. Another course — arguably likelier to produce results — proposes better coordination on foreign criminal activity both among Thai police and security agencies and between Thai and foreign police intelligence.

But easy visa regulations are just one part of the problem. Large expatriate business communities and a growing army of illegal migrants have made Bangkok and other Thai cities — notably the glitzy playgrounds of Pattaya and Haadyai — attractive hunting grounds for foreign crooks. Dressed up as "businessmen" and "investors," many are long-time residents.

Take the case of Akbar Shah, the 35-year old Pakistani gang boss shot dead by police on Sept. 13. He first came to Bangkok in the early '90s and quickly found his feet in Bangkok's South Asian underworld. By 1995 Akbar Shah had set up the Seven Stars tour agency, a front for both fake passport production and people-smuggling. In October that year his men beat up two Bangladeshis from another travel agency, ostensibly in a hard-knuckle protection racket. In fact the Pakistanis were keen to collect on a 5-million-baht debt (then about $200,000) owed for fake passports by the Bangladeshi "tour operator" who was doing some people-smuggling of his own.

After escaping during a police raid, Shah continued to operate, found time to marry a Thai wife and for a while was actually providing the police information, apparently on the activities of two rival Pakistani gangs. "Our work sometimes needs help from gangsters," says one police officer. "They are sources of valuable information." Being an informant did not prevent Shah's eventual arrest and deportation to Pakistan. But early this year he returned to reclaim his old territory using a new name, a new passport and a fake visa. Then came the Sept. 13 shootout. Police say they fired in self-defense. But word that Shah failed to hit three officers from just seven meters stretches credibility. The police have denied any wrongdoing. Even Thai hospitality has its limits.

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