More than two years after being told they were fake, Thailand’s military is still using bogus bomb detectors that were fraudulently sold by a discredited British company, according to the country’s Department of Special Investigation.
Thai security forces so far have bought 1,576 of the fake devices at a cost of US$30 million, investigators said, which the army currently uses against Islamist guerrillas despite a U.S. Embassy alert that the devices are "like a toy."
Asia Sentinel and other publications reported on Feb, 17, 2010, that the devices were fake. Then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said at the time that the devices had worked only four times in 20 field tests, a frequency even below random chance. Critics said the use of the devices could subject the users to the possibility of being blown if the operator fails to detect a nearby explosive that is detonated.
The Department of Special Investigation –Thailand’s equivalent to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation — announced two weeks ago that the manufacturers and distributors of the useless devices fraudulently sold them to Thailand’s security forces and other agencies. The DSI then sent the case to the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which set up 13 panels on July 24 to investigate the purchases.
However, Thailand’s top generals continue to endorse the devices.
"Do not say the GT200 used as a bomb detector in the far south does not work," Defense Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat said in July, referring to southern Thailand where 40,000 troops are fighting Muslim separatists.
More than 5,000 people have died on all sides in the south since 2004 — including by explosives.
"It has often detected explosives. If it can detect a bomb just once, it is worth it," Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol said.
In 2006, when he was air force chief of staff, the air force was Thailand’s first agency to buy GT200s to detect drugs and bombs at airports, Thai media reported.
Soon afterwards, the army bought more than 750 GT200s, reportedly endorsed by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is now Thailand’s army chief.
"I have seen the effectiveness of GT200 detectors in finding explosives," the military’s Supreme Commander Thanasak Patimapakorn said in July, echoing the armed forces’ closed-rank approach toward public criticism about the devices.
"For the military to admit that they were duped into buying useless bomb detectors…may invite unwanted investigation into suspected corruption," wrote Bangkok Post’s former editor Veera Prateepchaikul on July 23.
There is no public evidence of wrongdoing by any military officials linked to the procurement contracts.
The DSI said a British company, ComsTrac, produced and sold GT200s and Alpha 6s to Bangkok by creating two representative companies for distribution, and three subcontractors.
The black devices include a small rectangular plastic box topped with a plastic cylinder, which can be gripped by hand.
"Speaking as a professional, I would say that is an empty plastic case," British explosives expert Sidney Alford told the British Broadcasting Corp. in 2010 after opening a GT200.
An insertable "detection card" which supposedly makes the device sensitive to explosives or drugs, is a useless paper card, Alford said. A shiny, collapsible, radio-style metal antenna sticks out of the plastic cylinder and swivels, purportedly when detecting something.
During security checks, nervous troops are ordered to slowly wave the device—making its antenna randomly sway. That has failed to detect bombs on passenger trains, roads, and in vehicles in the war-torn south.
Thailand purchased a total of 1,576 GT200s and Alpha 6s, according to the DSI. The army is still using most of its 750 GT200s in Thailand’s three Muslim-majority southern provinces.
After 2006, hundreds more of the devices were bought by the Border Patrol Police Bureau, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board, the Justice Ministry’s Institute of Forensic Science, the Customs Department and other agencies.
These include the Defense Ministry’s Royal Aide-de-Camp Department, responsible for the security of Thailand’s king, queen, crown prince and other royal family members.
On Feb. 26, 2010, the American Embassy in Bangkok alerted the U.S. National Security Council, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Secretary of Defense, the military’s Pacific Command in Hawaii, and U.S. embassies in Japan, China, South Korea and elsewhere about Thailand’s continued use of the GT200.
The "confidential" report, released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, was titled "GT200 Bomb Detector Failure Ignites Discussion on Civil-Mil (Civilian-Military) Relations, Human Rights, Procurement," and said in part:
"The GT200 is used throughout Thailand by many agencies, most notably in the conflict-ridden Deep South. The bomb detection squad in Yala [a Muslim-majority province in southern Thailand] told us that they never thought it worked, but they were ordered to use it. The squad passed the GT200 to Emboff (U.S. Embassy officials) to hold; it looked and felt like a toy," the embassy’s report said.
The U.S. Embassy noted "the questionable use of the device to detain alleged insurgents," because the antenna wobbles toward innocent people who are then detained and interrogated.
"To most people, the GT200 appears to be a glorified dowsing rod," the U.S. Embassy said, comparing the erratic antenna to a wooden twig which people claim detects water.
"We have done a double-blind test where the equipment was only successful in discovering [explosives] in 20 percent of the cases, when just a random choice would give you 25 percent," then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announced in 2010. "So there is no statistical significance to having the equipment."
After that belated test, Bangkok banned additional "procurement" of both devices, but not their continued use by security forces. As a result, the military and other security agencies have become the laughing stock of Thailand’s media and society for using the devices.
A Bangkok Post editorial cartoon on July 22 portrayed a DSI investigator using a gigantic GT200 to electronically zap a uniformed official, who stumbles after being hit.
Following the paper trail, Thai media dubbed the faulty devices as "corruption detectors."
The DSI’s announcement came several days after an 18-month international investigation by Britain which resulted in British businessman Jim McCormick being charged in London on July 11 with fraud for allegedly selling fake bomb detectors to 20 countries.
In January 2010, Britain banned various fake bomb detectors being exported to Iraq and Afghanistan, after the Iraqi government paid $85 million for 1,500 hand-held devices named ADE651, allegedly produced by ATSC, McCormick’s company.
When that ban was announced, the British Broadcasting Corp. said it "obtained a GT200 that was sold as a bomb detector, and discovered that it was almost identical to the ADE651," and sold in England by Global Technical, headed by Gary Bolton.
(Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist. Check out his stories at http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com)