Bangkok - More than 100 Thai immigration officers are expected to face bribery-linked charges in the coming weeks after allegedly helping thousands of Chinese enter Thailand illegally to set up criminal businesses.
Speaking to reporters March 9, Deputy National Police Chief General Surachet Hakparn said cases have been drawn up against the officers, including at least one with the senior rank of police general. Their files have been handed to the National Anti-Corruption Commission to bring charges on a variety of allegations involving malfeasance in office, including bribery.
The development comes as Thai authorities try to stem the spread of illicit cash from China across its economy, from tourism-linked businesses to properties and nightlife enterprises.
The ability of Chinese money to bend Thailand's laws has alarmed Thais in recent months, after the arrest of Chinese national Chaiyanat "Tuhao" Kornchayanant late last year for allegedly laundering tens of millions of dollars through the kingdom. "Tuhao" is Mandarin for "rich' and is a nickname often given to the new wealthy of China.
Tuhao was married to a Thai police officer and was granted citizenship, taking the Thai name Chaiyanat Kornchayanant. Facing an arrest warrant on drug charges, he turned himself in in November and had properties, luxury cars, a private jet and cash totaling nearly $90 million confiscated by police.
Authorities allege he used high-level Thai connections to operate a criminal ring that brought at least 4,000 Chinese nationals into Thailand to run spinoff businesses, including nightclubs where drugs were openly sold to Chinese customers. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and faces trial in the coming months.
The investigation opened a window into the world of the shadowy front companies used by Chinese nationals to establish illegal business empires in Thailand, as well as dubious visa services offered by Thai immigration police to people who then established 'gray businesses' in the kingdom, according to the police.
"We know they came in as tourists then changed their status to student and volunteer visas. But they have nothing to do with any educational or charity institutions," Surachet told reporters.
"They were all here to commit crime. Our investigation found that some Thai authorities are indeed corrupt," he said.
Chinese money pouring in
Chinese wealth has been pouring into Thailand's condominium developments, resorts, restaurants and farms - much legitimate, some not - since China dropped pandemic movement controls on its citizens at the start of this year.
"Immigration police are supposed to be the country's security guards, but instead they're welcoming Chinese criminals with arms wide open," Chuvit Kamolvisit, a businessman and ex-politician whose whistleblowing uncovered the Tuhao scandal, told VOA.
"China's strict law against crime and corruption may have forced a small percentage of its population to venture out to operate their criminal activities in countries that have weak law and governance like Cambodia, Philippines and Thailand," he added.
The negative headlines have also alarmed Chinese authorities.
A Facebook post on March 2 by the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok conceded "a small number of individuals" were engaged in crime in Thailand but they "by no means represent the mainstream of Chinese citizens and enterprises in Thailand."
The embassy said it was cooperating with Thai police but suggested an unnamed "third-party" was attempting to use the issue of Chinese crime gangs to "undermine friendly cooperation between Thailand and China."
Beijing wants Thailand's cooperation in its plans for high-speed railways across the Mekong region with Bangkok as the fulcrum point for lines running from southern China to Singapore. It also covets the sea access Thailand provides to both the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Thailand, as well as fruit, rice, pork and poultry from its farms, and investment opportunities for Chinese companies from 5G giant Huawei and e-commerce pioneer Alibaba to electric vehicle makers Great Wall Motors and BYD.
For its part Thailand has edged closer to China in recent years as Beijing ramps up its strategic push into its neighborhood, experts say.
Thailand is yet to fall into a client relationship with China, experts say, unlike neighbors Laos and Cambodia, whose small economies and populations have been consumed by the scale of Chinese investment.
"Thai-China relations aren't 100% pro-Beijing ... which is how China wishes it would be," said Vorasakdi Mahatdhanobol, of Chulalongkorn University's Chinese Studies Research Unit.
"Thailand's still very much got a hold on itself," he added.
There are fears, though, over the long-term damage the proliferation of criminal wealth may do to Thai businesses and power structures, unless it is stemmed, he said.
"Thailand has many attractive elements for organized crime groups like the one led by Tuhao," he added, referring to corruption among police and politicians.
"Without them there's no way these Chinese gray businesses can find a home here," he said.