Transborder News

What lies behind the effort to build a bridge over Mekong River to Kings Romans. Exposing the Chinese mafia gangsters From the perspectives of Prof. Dr. Pinkaew Laungaramsri

By Paskorn Jumlongrach

It was proposed by the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce to Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Srettha Thavisin and his delegation during their visit to Mae Sai District, Chiang Rai in the middle of September 2023 to have a bridge built across the Mekong River linking up between Chiang Saen District and the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone. The proposal, however, received such widespread criticisms. 

The Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone and the Kings Romans Empire of Zhao Wei, a grey businessman, sits across Chiang Rai’s Chiang Saen District. It is known to be a breeding ground for all criminal activities ranging from gambling to trafficking in person and poaching and a hub of narcotic trade as a result of which Zhao Wei has been blacklisted by the United States of America. 

Meanwhile, the burgeoning Kings Romans Empire is home to large hotels, casinos and soon a large department store as well as an airport under construction. It means the flow of colossal money spinning around the area which is begging the question among parties as to the sources of such money. Still, the money looks so glittering and attractive to some Thai politicians and government officials and as a result, they have all come out to support the idea to build a bridge across the Mekong River upon their return from a lavish treat at the Kings Romans Empire.

Prof. Dr. Pinkaew Laungaramsri from the Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, has produced research and publications that give insight into the investment in casino business and the Special Economic Zone by the Chinese investors in the Golden Triangle area along the Thailand-Laos border. She is compiling information about the Chinese grey business investors in Myanmar’s Myawaddy opposite to Tak’s Mae Sot District. According to her, the desire to build a bridge across the river to Zhao Wei’s Kings Romans Empire has long been overdue. In a book about casino capitalism, it quotes Zhao Wei as saying that he wants to build a bridge in the shape of the word which means humans in Chinese to link up the three counties. For the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, it is obviously linked to criminal activities in Mae Sot District.

“When I was conducting research on the side opposite to Mae Sot District, my research assistants have interviewed people who needed help. Many of them have fled from the area, including many Chinese nationals. They clearly stated that they had been lured by their agents to work at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone and were told to work in Romance Scam business. After a while, they felt they did not like it and wanted to return home. When they told their agents that they wanted to leave, the agents simply sold them off to another agent in Mae Sot District. The information is so obvious. We have also learned about the KK Park, opposite to Mae Sot District, a bit away from the Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone. The place is so big, even bigger than Shwe Kokko and is home to around 200,000 people. This is all about gangsters and their criminal activities. You cannot enter it. At least at the Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone, they run casinos and allow gamblers to get in there. But at the KK Park, no entry of outsiders is allowed. It is a 100% den of criminals.

“One of the KK buildings, the KK4, as far as we know, has been made possible by the joint-investment with Kings Romans. Basically, Zhao Wei has purchased and invested in the project. Why did he buy the building? Obviously, because it is a hub of all the call-center gangsters and the connection is there.”

            According to the academic who is so well-versed in the transnational criminal activities of the King Romans, it is so worrying that the Thai government by a former First Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives Suchart Tancharoen has gone to participate in the Dok Ngiew Kham’s parties and banquets and has said that this Special Economic Zones is crime-free. How could you say this since Zhao Wei and his colleagues have been blacklisted by USA? Their stories have been known all over the world. If there is no evidence, such news would not have been widely reported. If there is no evidence, it would not be possible for the USA to blacklist them. Certainly, efforts have been made to protect their transactions enabling them to launder their money. 

“An effort to invest with the folk behind the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone is extremely dangerous since it is tantamount to giving justification to the illicit trade, internationally or not. At present, people lured to work with the call-center gangsters have been sold off to the Golden Triangle gangs and ended up in the area opposite to Mae Sot District. They are initially shipped through a boat ride to Tachileik and then transported on to Mae Sot District. But if this bridge gets built, it will make thing even quicker. And this is not only about trafficking in person as exposed earlier by Chuwit (Kamolvisit). You should take this into consideration.”

Late last year, Chuwit Kamolvisit exposed how the Chinese grey businesses in Thailand known as the “Five Tigers” use Thailand as a money-laundering site for Chinese grey businesses and Zhao Wei’s cronies including his close aide, Mr. Fei, who can travel inside and outside Thailand freely and works as his cash collector.   

“It looks skeptical as to why he would put his own money into building the bridge. What kind of business he has? Why has he amassed so much money?  I have been to Kings Romans, and it looked to me as a tourist attraction. But one cannot generate such staggering amount of money from tourism. We talk about billions of baht, which is impossible. By common sense, this looks very abnormal” said Prof. Dr. Pinkaew as she brings to the Thai government’s attention the big money Zhao Wei will use to build the bridge. 

According to Prof. Dr. Pinkaew, at present, collaboration has been made by police in the three countries including Myanmar, Thailand and China as a tripartite committee. Originally, a police station was supposed to be built in Myawaddy, but as Myanmar said it was not ready, the police station has thus been built in Mae Sot District. During their three-month-operation, our researchers have interviewed Chinese police who said around a dozen of them have been stationed at the Thailand’s Immigration Bureau. There are three key agendas proposed by the Chinese including (1) cutting off electricity, (2) cutting off internet connection, and (3) arresting all concerned suspects. 

“After cutting off power and internet connection, the Chinese authorities feel they have achieved something. But in fact, it was not at all effective. I used to take my students to visit the area and continued to see all the bright lights at nighttime. If you sit across at a Thai restaurant, you could still see and hear the sound of power generators. Basically, they had got themselves prepared beforehand. The Chinese investors have already procured the equipment and the generators. According to our interviews with people working in the area, they told us that there are power generators installed in all buildings”. 

“On that side, they have no problem with fuel. According to our interviews, the Chinese investors had foreseen the problem. They knew of the need to develop their own power generation in Myanmar. After all, Myanmar is rife with resources and the investors have deep pockets. They have no problem finding an alternative source of energy. It only takes some time. But stopping supplying them power, it only prompted them to jump quicker into an alternative source of energy. As to the internet connection, since they no longer can use services from Thailand, they can still rely on the connection in Myanmar. They can use internet through Mytel network whose concessionary rights have been given to the Karen armed forces. It may be more expensive and not convenient like the internet connection from Thailand, but it does not disrupt their business. That the Chinese brag about the success from depriving them of such access, in fact it has not really impacted such big investors.”

Exposé has been made about the Chinese grey businesses that have laundered their money in Thailand and the issue has even been raised for discussion in the Thai Parliament since it is closely linked with the big politicians and government officials. Still, the effort made by the Thai government to investigate the case does not look palpable. It appears like they are closing one eye, when the issue gains traction, you just pretend to work hard to crack down on it, but when it does not attract public attention, you simply let it run its course as before. The role the Thai government will play to combat the illicit movements of the Chinese grey businesses therefore captures the attention of mafia and gangsters around the world and the public as well. 

“If they are sincere, the Thai government can definitely crack down on them. When the Chinese police start operating from here, they have in their hand a list of suspects, 400- 500 of them, including their passport numbers. All the necessary information is there. They all need to renew their visas and open their bank accounts in Thailand. They have many businesses to do here.

“That a lot of Thai nationals have been recruited to work with the Chinese grey businesses means Thailand is definitely a transit area. Here, the Chinese gangsters have to contact the Thai authorities and have to have transactions with the Thai banks. They have to cross the border to do their business in Mae Sot District. If Thailand is serious about coping with them, they already have a list of 400-500 names, and it is not difficult to track them down. It depends on how serious the Thai state wants to address the issue. 

“Our team has interviewed the interpreters and they said that those involved with Chinese grey businesses would not do the job for too long. Mostly, after amassing some money, they would shift to do a legit business in Thailand. They would use their savings to open a Hot Pot restaurant, or run Chinese online shopping to import and sell their products in Thailand. This is particularly true to the case of the Chinese who cannot return to their country, all of them will end up in Thailand. Thailand is no longer a transit place. It is no longer true that Thailand is simply a transit area to Myanmar. We need to wrap our head around the connection between the legit businesses and the grey businesses. They all are connected and run by the same groups. And it is not difficult for the Thai police to track them down, if they are really serious about it.”

            As to the proposal to build a bridge connecting between Thailand’s Chiang Saen District and Zhao Wei’s Kings Romans Empire, Prof. Dr. Pinkaew believes that if the bridge gets built, it would help to money-launder his businesses. Intentionally or not, the Thai politicians are helping to whitewash these people. 

“It is extremely improper to come out and guarantee that Zhao Wei’s SEZ is free of crime. It is ridiculous. Who would show you their true colors when you are invited to join their parties? Who would show you that their buildings are a hub of call-center gangsters? This is impossible. Radio Free Asia has reported the stories since last year about how Laotian people have made their escape from there, how Indians nationals have been rescued from there, and how other nationals have been helped to escape. All of the survivors said exactly the same thing that they have run away from the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone. And they have even called to ask for help from the Laotian police, but the police told them they could not get in there, and they had to find their way out themselves. At least, they were asked to escape to the fences at which the police could offer them help. The information is so detailed. Where have you been? Have you not ever read such news? Now, you even want to help to whitewash them. This is so ridiculous.

“What Zhao Wei has been touting about is his place is a tourist attraction and an economic hub. This is just an attempt to whitewash his illicit trade. An economic hub would not generate that much revenue, not big enough to build this and that. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was known to everyone about the boom of these criminal activities or call-center gangsters and how big the money from the businesses that scammed people and how it was circulating in the area.

“What we should think hard about is what can Thailand gain from this? It is not really worth it since we all know the bridge will simply be instrumental to help develop the burgeoning criminal activities and the call-center gangsters and gambling making them spread even quicker and wider. 

            Until now, the border area in the North from the Golden Triangle to inside Laos, to Myanmar’s Tachileik and the border area in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, to the Western border in Tak and Kanchanaburi through to Ranong, all of this area has been a strategic hub for the Chinese grey businesses which want to make their inroads there. That’s why the area has been viewed as a safe haven by such mafias. 

          “This has been made possible by complicity of the local states. It is where China cannot exert their power on and it is not possible to call on local states to issue laws to regulate such criminal activities. For the same reasons, in the area opposite to Mae Sot District, this is where we can say there is the intersectionality of sovereignty. Myanmar also engages in double-dealing. On one hand, they can reap the benefit, on the other, the Karen armed force gets the money they can use to fund their armed forces. 

“The Karens, both the BGF and KNU are involved. BGF controls the area of the Shwe Kokko, whereas the KNU controls the area of KK Park. The issue of sovereignty matters here. If the central authorities are weak, in the case of Myanmar, they cannot exert their control over the border area, particularly where it falls under the control of armed groups. However much they impose their pressure, the Chinese authorities regulate the area. As to Laos, they have succumbed to the power of money. Therefore, they do not care, or they have some special deals, i.e., to develop the place into an urban area. This is reflected from what Zhao Wei has been genuinely pushed for, to really develop a city, i.e., to build an airport, to build a bridge, to build high-rises. Tourism is only a part of their game, but not their main economic engine. They only allow people to invest there just to create a false image.

“These two Chinese grey investors are similar to each other. They often make donation to charities. This is how they use grey money to whitewash themselves making them look like a generous philanthropist. But their main economic engine is based on economic crime. Laos benefit from this business. These two areas are made perfect by the complicity of the local states in collaboration with the Chinese grey businesses. If Thailand does not comply with this, it will become a weak local state.”

Asking if Thailand’s security forces are aware of this information, Prof. Dr. Pinkaew replied that “They have the information and are certainly aware. We need to ask if they take things seriously. If so, it is not difficult. At the moment, the tripartite group composed of police from the three countries has been formed. It has even expanded to four countries including Laos. They just met a few months ago. This has led to a collective effort to carry out many things with China taking the charge. The question is as far as the collective effort to suppress organized crime is concerned, how serious is Thailand with this? If we are serious, we will see a clearer picture since the coalition includes Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and China.

“As they are planning to build the bridge, will Thailand get involved? This serves the conflict of interest in terms of the policy. The police and the security forces are well aware of the hubs of the call-center gangsters. Therefore, if there is going to be any project to enhance transportation in such area where it has been hard to transport, and it this project will facilitate the flow of illicit activities, such project needs to be carefully vetted.

“We no longer live in the cold war period during which time we should greedily grab any opportunity to build bridges as proposed by the big nations or investors. We need to analyze as to what kind of money shall be funneled to finance the construction of such bridge. Is it legit money? How will it affect Thailand since Thailand has already become a hub of such flow of criminal activities. Will it even make the area more strategic? 

“An effort has been made by politicians who want to develop border towns into a casino city including in Chiang Rai and Mae Sot District. The idea is still controversial though. We have gone to the area to interview everyone, except the Chamber of Commerce. All of these investors say the project is not good, but given how torrential the water, one cannot stop it. If the state is ready for it, it has to get themselves prepared.”

            The current Thai Prime Minister vows to combat narcotic trade from day one since his ascension to the office.  Similarly, he promises to crush the gangsters, mafias and criminal rings by even appointing a “godfather” to lead the charge to suppress his fellow “godfathers”. But all these shall not be achieved if we still harbor the ground that nurtures such underworld criminal groups within our borders and allow Thailand to continue as a conduit for the flow of the illicit trade and while allowing big politicians with close ties to the Chinese mafia to be part of the political parties that form the coalition. 

This is a translation of original Thai article https://transbordernews.in.th/home/?p=35975

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