|(Flight MH370) Stolen passports shine light on Bangkok's role as global haven for criminals
Thailand's role as a hub for criminal networks using false documents is in the spotlight after two passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 used passports stolen in the country, sparking fears of possible a terrorist attack.
(Pictured, policemen in Bangkok display 2 million methamphetamine pills seized in Lampang province in a 2012 seizure).
Two European names were on the passenger list for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, which disappeared in the early hours of Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, writes Amelie Bottollier-Depois of AFP. But neither Christian Kozel, an Austrian, nor Luigi Maraldi from Italy was on board. Their passports had been stolen in Thailand, they said.
“Thailand has been used by some international terrorist groups as a zone of operation, to raise funds or to plan attacks,'' said Rommel Banlaoi, an analyst on terrorism in South-East Asia.
In 2010, two Pakistanis and a Thai woman were arrested in Thailand on suspicion of making false passports for Al-Qaeda linked groups, as part of an international operation linked to the 2008 attacks in Mumbai and the Madrid train bombings in 2004.
But Banlaoi stressed that stolen passports used on the Malaysia flight “could also be linked to other criminal activities, like illegal immigration.’’
“Thailand is a destination for international crime organizations who use it to secure travel documents, financial documents,'' a Thai intelligence source said.
“It's not just linked to terrorism but to other crimes. It's a complex network, connected to other networks.''
The intricate web includes Thais and foreigners, passport thieves, counterfeiters, intermediaries and clients, he said.
Thai police have announced an investigation into a possible passport racket on the resort island of Phuket – Maraldi's passport was stolen there in 2013 and Kozel's on a flight from Phuket to Bangkok, according to authorities in Vienna.
Malaysia said Monday it had identified one of the men using airport video surveillance.
Geographically well-placed and with a major international airport, Thailand is best known for being a hub for illegal drugs, human trafficking, wildlife trafficking, including elephant ivory from Africa, and even as a haven for pedophiles and foreign fugitives.
But it also supplies documents to illegal immigrants moving within or passing through the region.
The route of the two unknown MH370 passengers – from Kuala Lumpur via Beijing then on to Europe – was “a typical path,'' for illegal immigrants one diplomatic source told AFP, adding that a large proportion of passports stolen from tourists in Thailand were then used for illegal immigration.
“They [the passports] are genuine, so they find someone who looks like the owner, or they falsify the first page,'' the source said.
The ease with which police officials can be paid off also helped the industry to thrive.
“The police can turn a blind eye if you have the money,'' he added.
Under Thai law, anyone caught selling or “owning in order to sell'' an illegal passport can be jailed for up to 20 years.
But entering Western countries with a stolen Western passport “is not easy,'' said Ahmed Salah Hashim, Associate Professor at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
He gives credence to the theory that terrorists may have targeted MH370, particularly since the two stolen passports were under Interpol surveillance.
Thailand does not check passports against Interpol's Stolen and Lost Travel Documents – a senior Thai immigration police officer told AFP.