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U.S. Agents Investigate Russian Killers/ Thieves in Thailand

U.S. Agents Investigate Russian Killers & Thieves in Thailand

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- America's Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Homeland Security and other agents are investigating "Russian organized crime networks" who are murdering and stealing in Thailand's most popular tourist beach resorts, according to a U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks.

Thailand is a staunch non-NATO U.S. ally and this modernizing, Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation has attracted criminals from all over the world who exploit its friendly ambiance, low cost workers, corrupt officials, and sophisticated forgery and sex industry networks.

The "confidential" cable was headlined: "RUSSIA LOOKS TO REINVIGORATE BILATERAL RELATIONS WITH THAILAND, AGAIN," dated December 4, 2009, and classified by the U.S. Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission James F. Entwistle, and signed off by Ambassador Eric John who noted "this cable was coordinated with [the U.S.] Embassy [in] Moscow."

"Thailand enjoys a rapid expansion of Russian tourists visiting Thailand, but has to deal with an unwanted side effect -- the presence of Russian organized crime networks around the popular beach destinations of Pattaya and Phuket," warned the cable, focusing the hedonistic, postcard-pretty destinations which appear in tourist brochures and advertisements throughout the world.

"Russian organized crime circles established a presence in Thailand in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union," the U.S. Embassy said.

"A number of U.S. law enforcement agencies are involved in investigating or monitoring cases involving Russian organized crime in Thailand, in cooperation with Thai partners, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"These law enforcement agencies report that criminal networks composed of mostly Russian nationals operating in Pattaya and Phuket are responsible for the commission of numerous crimes, including extortion, money laundering, narcotics trafficking, real estate fraud, financial fraud, human smuggling, pandering, counterfeiting, document fraud, cybercrime, and illegal importation of cars," plus killings.

"While much of the Russian organized criminal activity in Thailand has occurred quietly, three specific cases generated public awareness of the phenomenon. In April 1998, Russian restaurant owner Konstantine Povoltski was found shot dead in a car near one of his two restaurants in southern Pattaya.

"In August 2003, police apprehended three Russian bank robbers when their speedboat ran out of fuel, after they held up the Bank of Ayudhya in South Pattaya, stole 2.4 million baht ($80,000) and killed a Thai police officer in the process. Rinat Koudaiarov was sentenced to death for the shooting.

"In February 2007, two Russian women were found murdered on the beach of Jomtien 10 km (six miles) from Pattaya, amidst speculation that it had been a Russian OC [organized crime] ordered hit."

The U.S. Embassy also scrutinized Moscow's influence on Bangkok's economy, diplomacy and culture.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov "highlighted Russia's eastern territories as holding natural resources -- such as oil, gas, and coal -- that could become the means to further engage with countries like Thailand," during Mr. Lavrov's July 2009 visit to Bangkok, the cable said.

"Lavrov announced Russia's interest in developing a regional facility in Thailand for storing, processing and trading Russian oil and gas," the U.S. Embassy said.

During Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Sobyanin's November 2009 visit to Bangkok, when he met Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, "Sobyanin looked to increase trade and investment, signaled Russia's willingness to cooperate with Thailand in research and development in the oil and natural gas sector, and underscored Russia's desire to cooperate with Thailand on security and culture issues."

U.S. diplomats questioned prominent Thais to find out how Moscow's intentions, strengths and motives fit Bangkok's financial needs.

An official from Thailand's Foreign Affairs Department of European Affairs, Wacharin Vongvivatachaya, told the U.S. Embassy "trade and tourism were the most important elements to the Thai-Russia bilateral relationship.

"For Russia, Thailand was its number one trading partner in Southeast Asia with trade accounting for over $1 billion annually," compared to U.S.-Thai trade which exceeds $30 billion a year.

"Wacharin stated that Russia's main exports to Thailand were rolled steel, scrap metal, fertilizers, unprocessed minerals, synthetic rubber, diamonds, pulp, and paper. Thailand's main exports to Russia were sugar, rice, gems, clothes, shoes, canned food, and furniture.

"Thailand's premier multinational, the CP Group, had invested in Russia by establishing an animal food producing factory in Moscow's suburbs, Wacharin added, though there has been little Russian investment in Thailand, mainly in small businesses," it said.

"The opinions of non-official Thais we talked to about the Russian diplomatic push was in general rather dismissive. Professor Rom Phiramontri, Director for the Center of Russian Studies at Chulalongkorn University, commented that in general Russia has had very little influence in Asia, particularly in Thailand.

"In his opinion, Russia was attempting to gain more influence with Thailand, geographically in the center of ASEAN, in an attempt to expand influence throughout the region, especially economically," the cable said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations which includes Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia.

Professor Kantassa Thunjitt from Thammasat University's Russian Studies Program "told us that Russia was trying to play a larger role in Southeast Asia, noting it has attempted to raise its status in the region by offering itself as an alternative to the U.S. and China."

Thailand's U.S.-trained military staged a coup in September 2006 and toppled a popularly elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who had ruled for five years and is currently in self-exile dodging a two-year prison sentence for corruption.

"Bangkok Post Senior Reporter Achara Ashayagachat told us recently that Thaksin had looked to Russia to expand market opportunities. Achara also believed that Thaksin sought to balance Thailand's relationships with both the U.S. and China through engaging Russia, while simultaneously looking at ways to maximize profits."

The U.S. Embassy expressed interest in the diplomatic and cultural relations between Bangkok and Moscow, which it traced back to when "King Chulalongkorn and Tsar Nicholas II exchanged reciprocal visits in 1909-1910, and the Tsar provided what many Thais consider a critical boost to Siam's [Thailand's previous name] independence in the face of British and French pressure on Siam's borders and sovereignty," the cable said.

"Wacharin Vongvivatachaya told us that Thai-Russian relations peaked during Queen Sirikit's State visit to Russia in July 2007.

"During the Queen's trip, she visited Moscow and St. Petersburg, met Putin and then First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and was deeply impressed by the Mariinsky Ballet. As a result, the RTG [Royal Thai government] arranged for the Mariinsky to visit in December 2007 to perform for King Bhumibol's 80th birthday," the cable said.

The U.S. Embassy was also concerned about the ongoing extradition trial of alleged Russian weapons smuggler Viktor Bout -- who was sent from Bangkok nearly one year after the cable was written, to stand trial in New York for allegedly trying to sell weapons to be used to kill Americans in Colombia.

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, Hello My Big Big Honey! Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His website is www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com

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