For decades, an unknown number of Chinese nationals have been involved in illegal or “gray” businesses in Thailand but managed to stay clear of trouble with the law thanks mainly to the help of corrupt state officials, particularly those in the police force.
These shady “businesspeople” have been left free to operate criminal activities that range from narcotics and arms trading to human trafficking, gambling, and money laundering.
Before the presence of these Chinese triads was exposed last year, Thai society was largely unaware of the problem, not to mention the extent of their gray businesses in Thailand. People in general did not know that networks of overseas Chinese – some of whom have become naturalized Thais – had made profits on Thai soil while corrupting the justice system.
Before launching their operations in Thailand, triad bosses allegedly established connections with senior military and police officers. Some of them have even boasted connections with Thai politicians.
The tip of the iceberg was uncovered in late October last year when an unlicensed Bangkok entertainment venue catering mainly to Chinese nationals was raided. Over 100 of its patrons tested positive for narcotics. Also confiscated in the raid were various party drugs, luxury cars and gambling equipment.
The pub was linked to a Chinese-born naturalized businessman named Chaiyanat Kornchayanant, aka Tuhao, who arrived in Thailand more than 20 years ago. He later married a police colonel who is a niece of former national police chief Pracha Promnok.
Pracha served as justice minister and deputy prime minister in Yingluck Shinawatra’s coalition government led by the Pheu Thai Party.
Tuhao donated 3 million baht to the ruling Palang Pracharath Party in 2021.
His group is one of five Chinese gangs operating entertainment venues in Bangkok and Chonburi as fronts for illegal businesses that include narcotics trafficking, money laundering and online gambling operations, according to deputy national police chief Pol General Surachate Hakparn.
In November, just as police action against the triads seemed to be losing steam, with some key figures released and criminal charges dropped, whistleblower Chuwit Kamolvisit emerged with documents he claimed exposed extensive police corruption and collusion with the Chinese gangsters.
Chuwit’s disclosures triggered public pressure that forced the police to charge Tuhao. The Chinese naturalized Thai surrendered on November 23 but denied any involvement with illegal activities.
Five Bangkok police officers – the most senior was a colonel – were subsequently relieved of their duties for allegedly taking bribes. Tuhao’s wife, Colonel Wanthanaree Kornchayanant, was also dismissed from the force as she was investigated for suspected involvement in money laundering.
Decades of stay in Thailand
Recent revelations made by Chuwit and opposition MPs show that some of the suspected triad leaders have lived in Thailand for over three decades.
One of them was identified as Yu Xinqi, who allegedly runs a shady business network similar to that of Tuhao. MP Rangsiman Rome from the opposition’s Move Forward Party accused him of illegally bringing about 7,000 Chinese nationals into Thailand.
Rangsiman said during a parliamentary debate in February that Yu founded the unlicensed Shaanxi Association of Thailand, based in Bangkok, as a front for triad activity.
With the help of the association, some 7,000 Chinese managed to get student visas for long stays in Thailand. Chuwit claimed that crime bosses had entered the country under the foundation’s cover.
Police later revoked Yu’s visa and charged him with illegal solicitation, violation of the Computer Crime Act, and establishing an association without a license.
In late February, Surachate, who was assigned by the national police chief to oversee the triads case, filed complaints against 110 immigration police officers – including three generals – for alleged dereliction of duty and bribe-taking.
Police say that corrupt immigration officers helped many Chinese nationals get their student visas renewed repeatedly, allowing them to stay in Thailand for longer than 20 years in some cases.
Driven out of China
A wave of Chinese triads migrated to Thailand about six years ago after Beijing launched a crackdown on corruption that forced many gray businesses to flee to Southeast Asia, according to Assoc Prof Wasin Punyawuttakul of Naresuan University’s Faculty of Social Sciences.
“In fact, Chinese mafias have been in Thailand since 2015. Thai authorities may have been unaware of this or they may have simply turned a blind eye to it,” the academic said.
The triads have since expanded their empire to cover various businesses ranging from legal tour agencies, restaurants, entertainment venues and hotels, to illegal prostitution and gambling outlets that cater mainly to Chinese expats.
He said that the exposed triads are just “the tip of the iceberg” as there is still a “much larger system of gray businesses” beneath it.
Described as security threat
The cash-rich triad bosses are thought to have laundered their dirty money through legal businesses as well as property bought through Thai nominees. Experts say this should be a cause for concern for Thais in general.
“If we do not treat this issue properly, we will see these Chinese capitalists take over islands in Thailand one by one,” said Assoc Prof Panitan Wattanayagorn, an expert in foreign and security affairs.
Panitan said that Chinese triads have become a threat to Thailand’s security, and he called for a widespread crackdown on them.
“[But] we need cooperation from China. This is a sensitive issue that may affect international ties. In fact, China wants to take action against these people,” he said.
The Chinese Embassy said recently that China supports Thai authorities in taking legal action against Chinese citizens in Thailand who are involved in illegal activities.
“The law enforcement agencies of China and Thailand have cooperated closely in combating cross-border crimes such as online gambling and fraud. It should be made clear that the suspected illegal acts are only committed by a small number of individuals and by no means represent the mainstream of Chinese citizens and enterprises in Thailand,” the embassy posted on its official Facebook account.
However, the embassy also claimed “third-party forces” were attempting to use this issue to “discredit China and undermine the friendly cooperation between China and Thailand”. It did not name the third parties allegedly involved.
It should also be noted that Thailand’s often lax law enforcement also makes it a haven for criminals from other countries, not just China.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk