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Four arrested over Thai treasure hoax

The 'treasure trove' claim gained credibility when Prime Minister Thaksin visited the cave
The 'treasure trove' claim gained credibility when Prime Minister Thaksin visited the cave  

In this story:

Sting operation

Wealthy connections

Suspicions

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BANGKOK, Thailand -- The bizarre saga of a mystery treasure trove holding billions worth of U.S. bonds has led to the arrest of four people in a sting operation involving the brother of Thailand's prime minister.

Police arrested four men over the treasure scam, which has embarrassed the nation and badly dented the government's credibility, after the men tried to sell fake U.S. bonds with a face value of $24.7 billion to Payap Shinawatra -- brother of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The bonds are thought to be the same as those Thai Senator Chaowarin Latthasaksiri claimed to be part of a hidden trove buried in Lijia cave, Kanchanaburi, that was supposedly left by retreating Japanese troops after World War II.

The prime minister took the Chaowarin story seriously, and even traveled to the alleged site, while other officials saw the bonds haul as a possible means of solving Thailand's international debt problems.

The embarrassed government then admitted to falling for a massive hoax.

Sting operation

Police arrested two Filippinos, a Singaporean and a Thai yesterday in the sting operation starring Payap, who posed as a potential buyer of the bonds.

Local media reports say Payap acted on his own in making contact with the counterfeiters before contacting the prime minister, who then alerted police.

Police then set up the sting, using Payap as the lure. Curiously, some media reports said the counterfeiters had known Payap's identity. His brother, the prime minister, also operates a multi-billion dollar telecommunications empire.

To prove that the bonds existed, the four agreed to take Payap and a police officer posing as Payap's secretary to check out the bond certificates. They were booked when they showed up at a Deutsche Bank office that held the bonds in a safety deposit box.

Inside the safety box, police said they also found gold coins, a microfilm record of the bonds and other documents purporting to certify that the bonds were genuine.

Jacqueline Enriquez, 29, and Robert Ng, 43, of the Philippines, and Tan Ho Chee, 40, of Singapore, are alleged to have collaborated to bring in the fake 1934 US bonds into the country seven months ago.

Wealthy connections

They allegedly deposited the fake bonds under the name of their Thai partner, Chai-ari Santiwongchai, son of a Chinese-language newspaper proprietor.

Chai-ari is a member of a prominent Chinese family that publishes a popular Chinese daily, Sing Sian Yit Poh.

He sits on the paper's board of directors, his father runs the newspaper business while his mother is heiress to the Haw Par family of the Tiger Balm fortune with business interests extending from London to Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and the US West Coast.

Deputy Police Commissioner General Sant Sarutanont said some of the 247 fake bonds, each with a face value of US$100 million, were similar to those in the pictures of the bonds Chaowarin had shown to Thaksin. He said Chaowarin would be questioned if it were confirmed.

The police have filed fraud and falsification charges against the four suspects, who could be jailed for life if found guilty.

Chaowarin crystallized Thailand's desperate hope for an economic panacea to Asia's financial crisis of 1998 by announcing he had located 250 U.S. Federal Reserve bonds in a cave, each with a face value of $100 million. He had spent years searching for the supposed treasure haul.

The Nation newspaper quoted Sant as also saying the U.S. Embassy had informed him that the bonds were fake because the U.S. did not issue wartime bond in 1934 and had never had a US$100 million bond.

Suspicions

Meanwhile, members of Thailand's parliament expressed suspicions that Thaksin had given credence to Chaowarin's claims his because he saw them as a good diversion charges of wealth concealment against him that are being heard by Thailand's Constitutional Court.

Investigators suspect the four had several other accomplices, believed to be from mainland China, who remain at large.

The Nation reports that investigators also claim Chai-ari, suspected to be a key link in the bond scam in Thailand, had ordered his wife to destroy evidence before police could search his home. Police said they found more U.S. bonds, with a face value of $100,000, at Chai-ari's residence.

Pending the investigation, Thaksin said, the public should not rush to judge Chaowarin.

"The fake bonds were certainly printed and brought into the Lijia cave," he was reported in the local media as saying. "But it is still not clear on Chaowarin's involvement. He may have been a victim duped to believe in the treasure trove."



RELATED STORIES:
Thai treasure cove a hoax: officals
April 17, 2001
Thailand starts WWII treasure hunt
April 16, 2001
Thai senator lifts lid on treasure trove
April 16, 2001

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