Time up for crooks 'living the Thai-life'

MILLIONS of tourists without criminal records travel to Thailand every year, drawn by the good food, lively night life and crystal-clear ocean. Fugitives come for the same reasons, with a few more thrown in.

"Thailand has traditionally been one of the top source countries for extradition of criminals to the US," said one March 2009 cable from the American embassy in Bangkok. The cable lists the variety of fugitives seized in Thailand over the years: child molesters, drug traffickers, money launderers and cybercriminals, among others.

A scan of recent headlines in Thailand suggests that fugitives from American justice are but a footnote on a long list of criminals at large.

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In the past two years, the news media have reported the arrests in Thailand of Germans wanted for fraud and tax evasion; a man suspected of being a South Korean mafia boss; Czech bank robbers; Pakistani passport forgers; a convicted Filipino murderer who was the most wanted man in the Philippines but worked in Bangkok as a jeweller; a French drug trafficker using his brother's passport; the leader of Japan's second largest organised crime syndicate; an Israeli fugitive convicted of a double murder in Belgium and travelling on a forged Maldives passport; an Australian suspected of killing a family of three; and seemingly countless paedophiles, some from the UK.

Many criminals find refuge in Pattaya, the seedy seaside resort southeast of Bangkok known for its go-go bars. A separate American diplomatic cable from 2005 said US fugitives had "taken up residence in Pattaya over the years, along with people who should be getting treatment for mental illness, but are not".

Thailand's freewheeling society, its pliant law enforcement and its status as a megamarket for vice at budget prices are powerful attractions for criminals from around the globe, said John Burdett, a British author of crime novels set in Thailand.

"There are a number of minor reasons and one very major one why the jet-setting underground would find Thailand irresistible," Burdett said. "The minor ones would include guns, girls, gambling, ganja and gorgeous beaches, especially for those recently released from confinement."

But what makes Thailand especially attractive, he said, "is the international reputation, whether deserved or not, of a compliant and bribable police force". Thailand's leaders have long acknowledged that there are bad apples - some would say whole orchards of them - among the police.

Lieutenant-general Wiboon Bangthamai, the commissioner of the immigration police, said officials at remote border posts had been known to suffer inexplicable computer troubles when people with lots of cash sought to cross the Thai border illegally. "Officers at small border checkpoints would break the computers and let them in," Wiboon said. The American cables point to weak law enforcement, a country preoccupied with political problems and inconvenient geography.

"Thailand's borders are long and extremely porous and the country is therefore vulnerable to international criminal elements of all kinds," the cables said.

Another reason Thailand has struggled to contain its fugitive problem is that stamping out what makes it attractive for the most wanted might curb the billion-pound business of hosting all those tourists without criminal records. Thailand's anything-goes ethos is coupled with a deep-seated hospitality that often seems blind to a foreigner's background and appearance.

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Bangkok's red-light districts crawl with beady-eyed, beer-swilling foreigners who might not look out of place on most-wanted posters. But as one Thai government adviser noted, it can be hard to distinguish between the crooks and the holidaymakers.

The Thai immigration department says it is overhauling its computer systems in the next two months, an upgrade that will combine all information about foreigners who enter and exit Thailand. Currently, data from the many land crossings are stored separately from information about the arrivals and departures at international airports.

Fugitives "will find it hard to get in," said major-general Manoo Mekmok, the commander of the immigration department's investigation and interrogation division. "Put simply, many will have to change their destination."

Yet analysts of Thailand's immigration system say the changes are unlikely to purge the country of foreign riffraff. What was supposed to be a command centre for tracking fugitives at a government building in Bangkok was dark and empty on a recent visit, inactive because of a lack of funds, according to staff.

Even in highly publicised cases, suspects in Thailand sometimes just disappear.

In May, a man from the United Arab Emirates was charged with trafficking endangered animals; he had been arrested at Bangkok's main airport with four baby leopards, a bear cub and two tiny monkeys. The case was front-page news in Thailand.

But two weeks later, the police, without providing further details, said the suspect had missed his court date - and fled the country.

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