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Chinese Gangsters Laundered Millions Through Thailand

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Chinese Gangsters Have Laundered Millions Through Thailand

Chinese gangsters operating in Thailand are raising awkward questions about how foreign criminals have freely laundered millions of dollars in illicit funds through the country.

The scandal began in late October, when Thai police conducted a nationwide anti-drugs operation and discovered a massive illegal nightlife den called Jinling hidden behind a car wash in Bangkok’s Sathorn commercial district.

It catered to a nearly exclusive Chinese clientele, serving up bags of ketamine and other party drugs in karaoke rooms that raged all night, with guests able to stash any unfinished drugs for their next visit.

Similar raids in the resort town of Pattaya discovered threads connecting several suspected Chinese criminals to authorities who had apparently not seen these anything-goes nightlife venues despite drawing thousands of visitors each night.

Over the next few weeks, raids uncovered a staggering list of assets derived from those illegal nightclubs, including a US$5.7-million (S$7.7-million) mansion, supercars, millions of US dollars in cash, and stashes of methamphetamine hidden away inside luxury condos in some of Bangkok’s most exclusive buildings, apparently stockpiled for sale at the clubs.

Arrests have since led to the identification of five suspected Chinese gangs operating criminal enterprises using student visas and forged Thai identities. One alleged ringleader detained in early November even had a phony Chinese embassy car and a police escort motorcycle.

But one suspect in particular has come under scrutiny: Tuhao, also known as Chainat Kornchayanan.

On November 23, he turned himself in to police as a Chinese national with Thai citizenship. He denies the drug and money laundering charges levelled against him.

“Tuhao is married to the niece of Police General Pracha Promnok [a former Justice Minister],” Thailand’s top cop, Lieutenant-General Surachate Hakparn, who is in charge of the crackdown, told reporters last week. “It’s no surprise that he knows a lot of police officers and former ministers.”

However, he stated that the gangsters with Thai IDs must have gotten around the kingdom’s strict immigration laws.

“We need to look into which local officials assisted them,” he said. “We’ll get to the bottom of it, and anyone involved in this illegal trade will face legal consequences. They will not escape.”

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Tuhao’s assets have been seized totaling more than 5 billion baht (S$194.5 million), including a jet, land, and three mansions, while the Chinese ownership of dozens of luxury houses in prime Bangkok developments is being investigated for links to his associates.
‘Zero-cost tourism’

Tuhao is credited with pioneering the “zero-dollar” tourism trend, which brought a flood of Chinese visitors to Thailand in the years preceding the pandemic.

The concept pushed Chinese visitor numbers to a record of around 10 million in a few short years, but it collapsed in 2018 after an overcrowded ferry sank in Phuket, killing scores of Chinese tourists and exposing a business model based on cheap packages with money spent in a closed loop of Chinese businesses, leaving little on Thai soil.

In many resort areas, however, the money made at the time still dominates business ownership.

“These people are too powerful,” a veteran tour guide told This Week in Asia in Pattaya, one of the main areas targeted by the zero-dollar tours. “They may have been arrested now, but I’m afraid they’ll be released soon unless the media takes this seriously and continues to investigate.”

Tuhao diversified into nightlife and other businesses during the pandemic, according to Thai police, by using Thai nominees to buy property and establish businesses.

Meanwhile, his ties to those in power have been called into question.

Tuhao made political donations worth around $100,000 through legitimate channels, according to the ruling Phalang Pracharat Party, which is being investigated by the Election Commission.

Police are investigating how Tuhao obtained Thai citizenship after only a few years in the country and are looking for other potentially hidden assets and bank accounts. As the scope of his network expands, several police officers and other officials are being investigated across the country.

“Remember, we’re fighting super-rich people with enormous wealth,” Police Lieutenant-General Surachate told reporters this week. “As a result, we must be very thorough in gathering evidence to bring them to justice.”

Tuhao was denied bail by a Bangkok court and has stated that he will prove his innocence during the trial.
Thais are concerned about the future.

Years of apparent impunity are raising difficult questions for Thai authorities about corruption, influence-peddling, and favor-trading for those with money to bend the rules.

“Society should join me in wondering how someone like Tuhao has amassed more than 5 billion baht in just ten years.” Chuwit Kamolwisit, a former nightlife tycoon, lawmaker, and part-time anti-corruption crusader, made the announcement to reporters on Wednesday.

Chuwit has led the charge against the Chinese gangsters, holding near-daily press conferences to reveal the main suspects’ alleged wealth, connections, and finances.

He claims that during the pandemic, the gangs devised a plan to stay in the kingdom and bring thousands of their compatriots with them. He claims it involved paying Thai immigration officials to allow them to set up bogus foundations, which they then used to obtain volunteer visas.

According to Chuwit, at least 3,000 Chinese people have entered the kingdom through this route, many to run illegal businesses and launder dirty money.

“How could you fail to protect the Thai people, how could you allow these Chinese dirty businesses to enter?” he asked.

Despite the fact that many of Chuwit’s allegations have been confirmed by Thai police, others remain unproven, they have highlighted the power of illicit Chinese money over entire sectors of the regional economy.

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They have even elicited a rare media rebuke from one of the Mekong region’s most notorious Chinese kingpins, Zhao Wei, the publicity-shy billionaire behind the Kings Romans Casino in Laos’ Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone on the Thai border.

“Chuwit, who are you? We’ve never met, so why is he accusing me in this way? “In a rare interview with Thai TV channel The Nation on Monday, he said.

“I’m just a Chinese businessman who moved in and developed this area in order to make it more prosperous. I’m not sure why they believe I’m involved in ‘grey business.’ If they want to accuse me, they need evidence to back it up.”

Zhao Wei was sanctioned by the US Treasury in 2018 for leading a criminal organization engaged in “a variety of horrendous illicit activities, including human trafficking and child prostitution, drug trafficking, and wildlife trafficking.”

As gruesome crime revelations continue to emerge in Thailand, there is growing concern about the potential for Chinese money – both legitimate and illicit – to squeeze Thais out.

A recent Thai government attempt to change the law to allow foreigners to own up to one rai (roughly one-third of an acre) of land was withdrawn in the face of widespread public outrage, primarily due to concerns that speculation by Chinese investors would drive prices beyond the reach of ordinary Thais.

For weeks, the hashtag #ChineseGreyBusinessMoney has been trending on Thai Twitter, where anger over the scale of crime committed by foreigners is growing.

“How can these people buy dozens of houses without raising suspicion?” asked one Twitter user in a post that was shared over 5,000 times. “These guys are travelling across the country like Thais.”

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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