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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Bang for the Baht

Thailand's hitmen are busy these days, killing business people. Their orders come from some very powerful figures

By Anthony Davis


THE MURDER HAD PROFESSIONAL hit written all over it. One evening last April, a motorbike drew up beside a silver Mercedes limo, just as it slowed at a speed bump in a posh Bangkok housing estate. The pillion rider raised a Beretta pistol, took practiced aim and squeezed off one shot. The 9mm bullet smashed through a rear window, piercing the heart and lung of the distinguished front-seat passenger. Hired killer Naruethuk Ountragul had mortally wounded Saengchai Sunthornwat, chief of the Mass Communications Organization of Thailand (MCOT). By the time the official's frantic wife Watcharee pulled up to aid the dying man, the assassin was gone.

Why did someone order Saengchai hit? In a word, greed. And that says a lot about the dizzying social changes prosperity has thrust on Thai society. Not that killers-for-hire are a new phenomenon; they have long practiced their deadly arts in the lawless provinces. But in the past, more often than not, contracts were politically inspired. Today the person ordering the hit is more likely a "respectable" businessman (or woman). "The number of these cases is going up," says top human-rights lawyer Thongbai Thongbao. "This is a reflection of social and economic problems and the growth in illegal businesses."

Nowhere perhaps do the hired killers find more work (and more money) than in the murky world where hard-knuckle business and money politics meet and merge. As one Sino-Thai businessman who works in Bangkok's problem-plagued real estate industry puts it: "If you cut corners yourself or do business with people who do, you need to know whose interests you are treading on. People can get killed."

Whether Dr. Nicharee Makarasarn understood that crucial rule of thumb will never be known. Last October, the 40-year-old anesthetist and teacher at Chulalongkorn Hospital was shot dead as she drove away from her Bangkok home. Police believe Nicharee fell victim to a business dispute between her elderly mother, whose affairs she managed, and wealthy Bangkok entrepreneur, Sukhum Cherdchuen. Nicharee's family had filed a lawsuit against Sukhum over a failed land deal, and he faced a $4-million settlement. Sukhum is an appointed senator, his apparent qualification being the size of his bank account and the gratitude of friendly politicians. He was later fingered by the hitmen and is now on trial.

It seems hardly coincidental that politicians have also been implicated in the shooting of MCOT chief Saengchai. Police arrested former Chiang Rai MP Thawee Puttachan for allegedly hiring the gunman. But authorities at first suspected that the real mover behind the hit was another former MP, businesswoman Ubol Boonyachalothorn, from northeastern Yasothorn. She was reportedly furious when Saengchai revoked the broadcasting rights to one of her companies as part of his campaign to clean up the corruption-riddled MCOT. Ubol was arrested and interrogated, and is today free after the prosecutors dropped the case for lack of evidence.

The men who do the dirty work for an all-too-respectable criminal elite usually take the rap. They rarely meet their employers or know whose lives they are extinguishing. It's an unforgiving profession but one not without cachet. The hired guns draw on the time-honored rural tradition of the nak leng, swaggering tough guys with their own code of loyalty and honor, half-mobster, half-Robin Hood. Says Pasuk Phongpaichit, an economics professor at Chulalongkorn University who has written extensively on Thai corruption: "Villagers needed to defend themselves against abuses by the central authorities." And that job often fell to the nak leng.

The nak leng as hired killer first emerged around World War I. But it was only after World War II that professional gunmen established themselves as a criminal fraternity with its own distinct sub-culture. In the post-war years army strongman Sarit Thanarat and police chief Pao Sriyanond wielded sweeping powers in the kingdom and political assassinations were the stock-in-trade. But in the '70s and '80s gunmen began gathering around fast-rising provincial entrepreneurs. Known in Thailand as jaopor and often of lowly Chinese immigrant extraction, these godfathers rode the rough ride of the kingdom's economic takeoff. Self-made men, they happily cut corners in a world where local government was weak, law was negotiable and money spoke loudly.

Chonburi province early on earned notoriety both for the power of its jaopor and the brazenness of its hitmen. Situated between Bangkok and Cambodia on the coast, Chonburi became in the 1970s the center of a thriving smuggling trade in drugs, arms, cigarettes and liquor. The chaotic boom spawned new wealth, new power -- and spectacular gang wars.

In 1981, Chonburi godfather "Sia" (Tycoon) Jiew died when gunmen armed with assault rifles, shotguns and grenade launchers attacked his Mercedes in broad daylight. Passing motorists thought they were watching a film shoot. The guestlist for Sia Jiew's funeral spoke volumes about the chummy ties between national leaders and provincial powerbrokers. Among more than 1,000 mourners that included army and police brass were elder statesman Kukrit Pramoj and Boonchu Rojanastien, then deputy PM. None of that prevented Sia Jiew's son and putative heir Parn from being dispatched in another high-caliber rub-out three years later.

Today, the lucrative fiefdom of Chonburi has been taken over by Somchai Khunpluem. Better known as "Kamnan (Headman) Poh," he is the quintessential self-made man. A grocer's son with four years primary education, he started out as a day laborer on a fishing boat. Now 59, he is a household name throughout the kingdom. Kamnan Poh reaped massive profits in the 1980s from real estate, hotels, massage parlors and whisky distribution. In 1989, he became mayor of the beach resort Bang Saen -- unopposed. Kamnan Poh has thrown his weight behind various political parties, including the Social Action Party, Chart Thai and, at least briefly, the New Aspiration Party of current Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. Of course, the Godfather of Chonburi did not get where he is today by playing by the rules. He once described himself as "half-businessman half-gangster" and has noted matter-of-factly that in Chonburi "bad guys must die." And they have -- in considerable numbers.

Somchai's would-be nemesis is Pol. Maj.-Gen. Seri Temiyavej, whose unwavering incorruptibility has made him one of Thailand's most respected figures. Seri has crossed swords with the well-connected Somchai on several occasions. In 1990 more than 300 police commandos called at his house to search for arms. To no one's surprise Somchai was conveniently not at home and no guns turned up. Clearly irritated by the unwanted attention, he later complained: "My hands are tied. Whenever there is a case of murder in Chonburi, they point their finger at me."

And yet despite sporadic police "crackdowns," Somchai has survived and prospered. "A policeman like Seri can never stay for long," reflects one observer. "He can't clean up because people higher than him in the police can't protect him." Indeed, Seri has more than once been sidelined to "inactive posts" in Bangkok. Somchai, meanwhile, is enjoying his passion for cultivating bougainvillea, overseeing a broad range of businesses, and acting as an investment consultant to Japanese companies operating on the Eastern Seaboard. He has parlayed his enormous economic and political clout into respectability of a kind: two sons have sat in Parliament.

As a breeding ground for gunmen, however, Chonburi has never challenged Petchburi, a coastal province that backs onto the Burmese border and has long been another center for smuggling, as well as lottery and gambling rackets. Like Chonburi, it has a long tradition of powerful jaopor. Most famous is the Angkinan clan of Chinese businessmen whose close ties with the local police and military earned them the sobriquet the "khaki mob." Clan leader Piya Angkinan, like his brother and cousin, has served several terms as an MP. One time a journalist asked him why he traveled without bodyguards. Wasn't he afraid of his rivals? His deadpan response: "I used to have enemies, but all of them died."

While the provinces of Petchburi and Chonburi are well-known blackspots, the enforcer-bodyguard can today find steady work throughout Thailand, especially in the fast-growth provinces near Bangkok and on the central plains. "There are all kinds of illegal activity that require these professional gunmen," says Pasuk. "And not all of them are necessarily linked to major jaopor." Illegal logging, drug-running, prostitution, protection rackets and simple strong-arm debt-collection all require enforcers. In the capital, illegal gambling dens are multi-billion-baht money-spinners where tens of millions change hands every night. "Owners say they're not criminals," says an insider. "But they need to have gunmen around to protect them. Even if they've paid off the police they can't guarantee they won't be raided by rivals or that quarrels won't break out inside."

Estimating the number of hired killers on the prowl in Thailand is not an exact science. Some say there are as many as 5,000; a more realistic guesstimate is a pool of 2,000 to 3,000 men with weapons and training. Many do not set out to become gunmen but start their careers as bodyguards to the jaopor. Still, the pressure to impress the boss can become intense -- and the hired thugs try to outdo one another to prove their loyalty. That may mean taking a life. The virtually feudal bonds linking the hired retainer to jaopor can be difficult for non-Thais to grasp. As one lawyer with experience of such cases says: "If a gunman is really trusted, even if captured he won't point to his boss."

Some see themselves as real-life Rambos and think little of operating by day with massive firepower. Such were the men who blew away land tycoon Songsak Poommek just last month in Nahkorn Pathom, west of Bangkok. After one attempt on his life, Songsak, 42, was taking no chances and went everywhere with an armed cop. But he was no match for the four gunmen who opened fire one morning with assault rifles from the back of a pick-up truck. Both Songsak and the officer died in a hail of bullets. These days, such military-style hits merit a massive and draconian response. In a scene that is becoming ever more familiar, hundreds of police commandos backed by helicopters descended on Nakhorn Pathom. When the shooting stopped one gunmen was dead. Another was later captured. To no one's great surprise, the dead hitman was a cop. "A lot of police have contact with local jaopor and politicians," says a crime journalist. "When you look at their official salaries, it's not surprising that some get involved in this type of work."

While killing people can be lucrative, it depends on who is being rubbed out, who wants it done and who is pulling the trigger. Mafia retainers may earn just $2,000 a hit. But hardened professionals working in squads of three or four will charge anywhere from $12,000 to $40,000 per assassination. The gunmen arrested for the murder of Dr. Nicharee claim that Senator Sukhum paid them $20,000. Of that, the triggerman got $8,000, the driver $2,000 and the two middlemen $5,000 apiece.

The hired killer's modus operandi seems to be changing. In deference, perhaps, to the sensibilities of a rising middle class, the fully automatic, in-your-face celebration of jaopor power appears to be on the way out. More in vogue these days are the low-key, drive-by hits that claimed Dr. Nicharee and MCOT chief Saengchai. Says one police officer: "People are no longer prepared to put up with the use of war weaponry to settle business disputes."

The kings of the profession are lone-wolf gunmen who maintain a low profile. Men like Paisak. A professional hitman in his mid-40s with two kids, Paisak (not his real name) is a soft-spoken man with a passion for reading and an intellectual curiosity that extends far beyond Thailand. His favorite pastime is cultivating shrubs and flowers. By day he is a weapons instructor at a military facility several hours drive from Bangkok. From time to time Paisak takes on "other work." He speaks of his moonlighting with obvious reluctance. Paisak first killed as a teenager, he says. Since then, years of military training and discipline have honed the skills required to execute a hit efficiently and dispassionately. Nor is Paisak prone to the whisky-fueled bragging that has cost lesser men careers and imperiled prominent patrons. That level of professionalism doesn't come cheap. For his last job Paisak says he got $40,000. There is no reason to believe he is exaggerating.

Headquarters for the war on hired killers is located at the Police Information System Center in downtown Bangkok. Its latest weapon is a $14-million computer system; when fully online next year, it will link a central database with 600 terminals around the country and cover everything from stolen vehicles to missing people to hired killers. Local officials will be asked to constantly update files on known or suspected guns-for-hire. "Files will include details about their names, nicknames, families, known hang-outs, the type of gun they favor, and whom they're connected to," says Police Col. Pairat Pongcharoen, a keen advocate of greater computerization in a woefully under-funded police force. Gunmen will be divided into three categories: pros who work in squads, lone-wolves like Paisak and amateurs. The database lists about 500 killers-for-hire nationwide, down from some 750 before the last general election when provincial gunmen traditionally cash in big killing political canvassers. That is not to say 250 gunmen were arrested, explains Pairat. They were invited in for chats at their local police stations and discouraged "Thai-style." Says Pairat with a smile: "No one wants to go to prison or be 'suppressed.'"

Understandably enough, these days. When hardened criminals are unmoved by friendly dissuasion, cops fall back on the "kill-'em-all" school of crime-busting, which seems to be gaining ground fast. In December, police commandos executed six handcuffed gunmen with shots to the head. They had "resisted arrest" after a drug bust. The so-called Suphanburi Massacre was defended by a defiant Deputy Police Chief Gen. Salang Bunnag -- and tacitly approved by the government.

Despite police fire- and computer-power, those ruthless enough to hire a gunman know the chances of being nailed are low. Col. Pairat reckons only half of all assassins are ever brought to justice. As for convicting the person who orders the hit, the odds become even lower: killings are invariably contracted through at least one layer of brokers. "In practice it is difficult for police or public prosecutors to punish those who hire gunmen," reflects lawyer Thongbai. "It comes down to a lack of direct evidence."

Consider the Saengchai murder. Hitman Naruethuk is serving a life sentence in Bang Kwang Central Prison. But the man who allegedly hired him, ex-MP Thawee, is fighting the case in court, while Ubol, the woman that police had alleged was behind Thawee, is walking around free.

At difficult moments, Thailand's elite tends to close ranks and take care of its own. Small-fry do time; rarely, if ever, do the rich and powerful. In the case of Dr. Nicharee, investigators believe they have a solid case against Senator Sukhum and, significantly, refused him bail. Not that it was easy to get him behind bars; the Senate voted to uphold Sukhum's parliamentary privilege, which ruled out his arrest while parliament was sitting. And it still won't be easy to convict. Says a Sino-Thai businessman: "Whether Sukhum goes to prison really depends on just how good his connections are."

Ultimately, reining in Thailand's gunmen and those who employ them hinges on fundamental political issues of the coming decade: constitutional reform, more transparent government, excising money-politics and the corruption it spawns. Driven by the rising frustrations of an increasingly vocal middle class and an assertive press, the pressures for change are mounting. But few underestimate the resilience of the old order. "I don't see any improvement in the short term," says Pasuk. "We need more courageous people, particularly judges and prosecutors. But I don't see that, least of all in the judiciary." For the time being, it looks like business-as-usual for Thailand's hired guns.


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