Thai Smuggling Ring Tied to Prince?

The purge of the family and allies of former Princess Srirasmi Akharapongpreecha is nearing completion, with at least 22 of them arrested so far, 17 of those charged with lèse-majesté, or misusing the name of the royal family.

Most of those arrested are connected to a vast smuggling ring that dealt in everything from cigarettes to oil. Pongpat Chavapan, Srirasmi’s uncle and the former head of the Central Investigation Bureau, has been arrested for leading the ring. Those involved, according to authorities in Bangkok, were claiming a royal connection to justify their demands, using the name of Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the crown prince and presumptive heir to the Thai throne .

But according to reports circulating widely in Bangkok, those royal connections were real. The individuals arrested were said to be using Vajiralongkorn’s name with his full knowledge, and the prince was said to be receiving a river of money from the illegal trade. Vajiralongkorn has long been known as Sia-0, the word “Sia” a nickname for Chinese-Thai gangsters. The “O” was a veiled reference to the prince’s royal name.

Thai politics being what they are, however, the reports may well be emanating from the Privy Council headed by Prem Tinsulanonda in an effort to discredit the prince. Prem and other members of the Privy Council, which advises the king on matters of state, detest the prince because he appears to be simply uncontrollable.

The prince used Srirasmi’s now-arrested brothers as bodyguards in Germany and in fact was photographed (see below) with her older brother, Narong, and the prince's mistress, who later supplanted Srirasmi to become his fourth wife.

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Despite an aura of royal rectitude protected by the world’s harshest lèse-majesté laws ,the crown prince has long been regarded as irresponsible, a womanizer and associate of Chinese gangsters, among other negative traits. Cables from the US Embassy, released by Wikileaks in 2010, quoted members of the Privy Council as harboring grave misgivings about his fitness to take the throne, saying he is widely hated and feared because of his irrational behavior.

“The only ones who are not arrested are Srirasmi’s parents, who of course are elderly” said an extremely well-wired source in Bangkok. “All the brothers and sisters went to town on this, I think. In any case you can certainly say that sources on the ground say this racket was sending money to the prince while it was operating.”

The network was “taking money from things all over the place – smuggled oil in the south, gambling dens, etc – huge amounts of money,” the source said. “For the ‘husband.’ They were giving money every month.”

Any indication that this purge signals a major reform of the police is false, according to several sources in Bangkok. The vast smuggling operation, according to the sources, has been taken over by the new national police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang, famed as a “businessman-cum-police general” who was appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta established by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha after he led the May 22 coup.

Somyot, whose corrupt dealings are a subject of gossip in Bangkok, took over the campaign to crack down on drugs when he was appointed national police chief as of Oct. 1, shunting aside one of his major rivals, Pongsapat Pongcharoen, who was said to be close to Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister who was deposed in 2006 but who retains considerable influence in the country. Thaksin’s power base has long been centered in the national police, where he once served as an officer.

Earlier this year, the National Anti-Corruption Commission announced that Somyot had amassed Bt246.4 million (US$7.49 million in assets and his wife another Bt128.2 million, giving the two a net worth of Bt355.8 million. (US$10.82 million)

“He's vicious and corrupt, and was picked by NCPO for the reason that they know they can control him as long as they don't disrupt his corruption,” a source said. “He was sidelined previously because of corruption - and resuscitated by the NCPO. He is a yes man and a loyalist and now will take advantage to take over the rackets that the now discredited group controlled.”

When the prince kicked out Srirasmi in late November, an earthquake blew through the top of the national police. The discovery of the equivalent of US$300 million in Buddhist relics, statuary, jewels and cash in the hands of Somyot, the ousted director of Thailand’s FBI, shocked the nation. But sources in Bangkok say it was uncharacteristic of top policemen to collect such precious historical items. In fact, they say, it is widely thought that they were meant for the prince.

The reasons for Srirasmi’s departure and the arrests of her relatives are unclear. One source, quoting Thais with connections to the palace, said the prince is so impulsive that he didn’t need a reason. He has acted precipitously in getting rid of two previous wives and was famous, or infamous, for his predilection for Thai flight attendants. In fact, he has replaced Srirasmi with one, a former flight attendant now known as Suthida Vajiralongkorn and whose nickname is Nui who recently gave birth to a baby boy and presumptive heir to the crown, displacing Srirasmi’s son, the 9-year-old Dipankorn Ramijoti.

The prince has since officially divorced Srirasmi, who has been forced to abandon her royal title, give up her jewels and has taken a commoner’s name, Busaba Suwadee, her original family name. She has been given Bt200 million (US$6.08 million) and dispatched to live in exile in Ratchaburi Province, 80 km. west of Bangkok. Dipankorn, according to reports, was taken away from her and dispatched to Munich, where the prince now lives with his new wife when he isn’t in Thailand.

The ever-present question is where this leaves Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled billionaire who remains a power in Thailand, having in effect led three surrogate governments by remote control from his perch in Dubai, to where he fled after being convicted of abuse of power charges in 2008. As has been widely reported, he cultivated Vajiralongkorn, to the point of reportedly building a palace for him.

The elites surrounding the throne in Bangkok may detest Vajiralongkorn, but they probably detest Thaksin more for his ability to keep vast numbers of poor voters on his side despite attempts to derail him. He sidelined the traditional Democratic Party, whose ties are deep to the royalists and who represent the Bangkok elites. The prince, however now appears to have ditched Thaksin and thrown his lot in with the military, which ended the elected reign as prime minister of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, and the Pheu Thai Party, in May.

It was the military that acted on Vajiralongkorn’s behalf to get rid of the top police connected to Srirasmi. Since that time, it appears there are major convolutions going in in the national police. The Thai language newspaper Matichon reported on Dec. 18 that a major reorganization is underway to clear out Thaksin forces in the police, including dissolution of the internal committee that oversees promotions, establishment of a national police council that would include some human rights committee members, among others, dissolve the Royal Thai Police office and ending the centralization of the police under a national command, transferring out a flock of police agencies to reduce the powers of the force, and other moves.

Nonetheless, according to a banking source with connections to the elites in Bangkok, the belief is that Thaksin retains at least a vestigial loyalty on the part of the prince. In the long run, according to some sources, eventually there will be an accommodation.