Thai Prison Escapees Gunned Down
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Security forces shot dead nine prisoners and freed their kidnapped victims Thursday (November 23) ending the latest attempt by Burmese to seize hostages in Thailand, much to the dismay of anti-terrorist specialists, Burmese democracy activists and government officials in both countries.
In a highway ambush to stop the kidnappers escaping across the border to Burma, Thai sharpshooters with automatic rifles opened fire on a stationwagon carrying eight Burmese prisoners, and one Thai inmate, who were armed and pistols and other weapons.
The nine prisoners reportedly soaked the vehicle and the hostages with gasoline hours earlier, and brought along a big metal cylinder of natural gas, to ward off an assault.
The three hostages inside the vehicle included a prison warden and two other prison officials. They were kidnapped along with three other jailhouse officers, plus a seafood businessman, on Wednesday (November 22) morning inside Samut Sakhon provincial prison, 24 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of Bangkok.
"We want to go home," the gang's Burmese leader, Maung Win, said in a live radio interview. "Let us go and we will free all the hostages at the border."
Complaining of the prison's miserable living conditions, he added, "We would rather die out there than staying on in here."
The hostage-takers discovered an acetylene torch, which they used to melt the hinges off the prison's blue metal gate, to enable the vehicle to depart.
Security forces later discovered the body of the prison's religious instructor, Udom Jithongpan, 35, who frequently visited inmates to lecture them on Buddhism. He reportedly died after kicking one of the Burmese early in the escape attempt, and suffered a bullet in the head.
Thailand watched in horror as the events unfolded live on television, with cameras aimed over the prison's cement walls, showing the sprawling complex and some of the pistol-waving Burmese who negotiated with officials for eight hours via mobile telephones.
The Burmese escapees had reportedly been charged with offenses ranging from drug trafficking to murder. The Thai prisoner was said to be accused of drug dealing as well.
The nine men did not express any political demands. But they insisted on driving west to where Burmese guerrillas have carved out enclaves across the frontier in Burma's thick jungle.
As darkness fell, officials allowed the vehicle to depart the prison with seven hostages. The escapees later released four in exchange for fuel.
"I'm a man with no future," kidnapper Muang Win told the radio show at that point. They then drove all night toward Burma. Early Thursday (November 23) morning, they stopped to fix a flat tire about 95 miles west of Bangkok.
Snipers had reportedly positioned themselves in the jungle at various places along the highway. It was not immediately clear why the car's tire suddenly went flat.
Security forces opened fire, shooting at the stationwagon for up to one minute, all on live TV.
After the gunfire silenced, medical personnel wheeled away one injured hostage who still wore handcuffs which had been forced on all the hostages at the start of the escape.
The nine prisoners' corpses were laid on the highway, covered in white sheets.
Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, who is also defense minister, had travelled to the scene to help coordinate the security forces.
After the shoot-out, Chuan said, "If we didn't do it, how could we be sure they would have released the hostages once they got to the border?"
The killing of all nine hostage-takers was reminiscent of a similar crisis in January when Burmese guerrillas, belonging to a tiny group calling itself God's Army, seized a hospital in the Thai town of Ratchaburi near the border. They demanded an end to Thai military bombardment of their rebel zone.
The security forces stormed the hospital, killing all 10 rebels and freeing hundreds of patients, medical staff and visitors who had been held for several hours.
Non-violent Burmese and international activists demanding democracy in hospital. In October 1999, a different group of Burmese rebels took over Burma's embassy in the Thai capital, Bangkok, holding Burmese diplomats, staff and foreign visa applicants hostage for several hours.
Thai officials airlifted the hostage-takers to safety and allowed them to escape, in a deal which freed everyone in the embassy.
That exchange was harshly condemned by security personnel and other critics in Burma and Thailand who claimed Chuan was soft on terrorism.
As a result, when the hospital was seized a few months later, Thai authorities unleashed a military assault.
richard s. ehrlich
asia correspondent firstname.lastname@example.org bangkok, thailand
phone (66 2) 286 2434 fax via usa (978) 334 5691
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<*> updated november 23, 2000 <*>