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Drug baron still one step ahead

                                        November 8, 1998 

 Drug baron still one
 step ahead

 Police fail to arrest him after 20 days

 Preecha Srisathan Onnucha Hutasingh

 Drug baron Surachai Ngernthongfu remains a winner in the
 hide-and-seek game he has played with the government thanks to help
 at the Thai-Burmese border and a lack of cooperation among officials
 who are trying to track him down.

 Ten police, army and anti-drug forces have been looking for Surachai,
 alias Bang Ron, in the Kanchanaburi border area for more than 20
 days, but the fugitive has remained elusive.

 Surachai fled during last month's police raid on his house in Nong
 Chok with a briefcase packed with several million baht in cash and
 was believed to be in hiding in Kanchanaburi.

 Police found hundreds of thousands of amphetamine pills during the

 A Border Patrol Police intelligence source based in Kanchanaburi said
 some policemen who became Surachai's underlings helped him cross
 the border into Burma at Ban Huay Takokhrok opposite Ban Mee Ta
 Mong in Sangkhla Buri district.

 From there, Surachai took a boat along Mae Ka Sa River, landed
 near the Kachai mountain range and sought refuge with a self-ruled
 Muslim community of about 100 families, located about 17 km north
 of the Three Pagoda Pass.

 The village, guarded by a heavily-armed force, had agreed with the
 Burmese military regime that it would not expand its boundary but
 Rangoon at the same time must not interfere with its "internal affairs",
 the source said.

 The source said the village has long been a major source of smuggled
 cattle and marijuana production as well as a transit camp for drug

 "That place was certainly a safe haven for Surachai," he said.

 The hunt shocked many locals who looked at Surachai as a man with
 a heart of gold.

 Surachai has had cattle trading and sawmill business in Kanchanaburi
 for 10 years. A Kanchanaburi police officer said he first came to sell
 beef with some Muslim friends in Tha Muang district and then
 partnered an influential policeman in trafficking cattle from Burma. The
 business flourished and was later expanded to Sangkla Buri, Si Sawat
 and Thong Pha Phum districts.

 He bought several plots of land in Tha Muang, two houses in Sangkla
 Buri and one on the Burmese border close to a stronghold of ethnic
 Mons and a number of rafts and resorts said to have been used for
 hiding amphetamines.

 The police source said Surachai also traded in cannabis during the
 cattle deals but was never caught because the Muslims and an
 ex-Border Patrol policeman helped cover up for him.

 With assistance from a Kanchanaburi businessman, a senior police
 officer and a former MP, Surachai later was given a quota to supply
 smuggled cattle to slaughterhouses in Kanchanaburi and Nakhon
 Pathom, where 40 percent of his income was paid as kickbacks to
 local policemen, the source said.

 Being able to dominate the beef market, Surachai moved on to illegal
 log trading. He jointly set up a sawmill in Sangkhla Buri with a former
 provincial councillor to process the illegally-felled logs, trucked to the
 mill by the policemen who took bribes.

 In 1993, Surachai began to deal in amphetamines. A military source
 said he was known to be the boss of Jo Danchang, a victim in the
 extra-judicial killing of drug traffickers in Suphan Buri by a police team
 headed by Salang Bunnag, a former deputy police chief, last year.

 The source said amphetamines were sent by cattle and log trucks, by
 speed boats plying between Sangkhla Buri and Thong Pha Phum, and
 by luxury sedans. Delivery vehicles were heavily guarded by police
 cars and that was why the drug could easily smuggled through police
 checkpoints, he said.

 Surachai had three close aides who were policemen to help take care
 of the illegal businesses. The fugitive also had established links with a
 logging mafia in Kanchanaburi and with some military officers, whom
 he had given several hundred rai of land in Sangkhla Buri and Thong
 Pha Phum to bribe them to turn a blind eye to the trafficking of cattle,
 logs, cannabis and amphetamines.

 A familiar face in Kanchanaburi, town residents hardly believed the
 man who made headlines on Oct 15 could be blacklisted as one of 20
 major drug dealers.

 "Bang Ron was very polite and humble. He was always the first to
 offer a wai to the people he knew," a villager said.

 Surachai on the bright side was a kind-hearted rich Muslim who liked
 to make big donations to Buddhist temples, Christian churches and
 child welfare centres in the provinces.

 He also was "the vendors' darling", as he never bargained and even
 paid extra sums for the merchandise he really liked such as wooden

 "He always dressed well. He loved hot and spicy food in Sangkhla
 Buri market and always paid four or five times more for the bill," the
 villager said.

 Surachai had two Mon wives in Sangkhla Buri.

 Rumours spread almost immediately about Surachai's hide-outs after
 his escape. Some sources said he was seen at the border and some
 others said he was hiding at a safe house of a military general. Some
 unconfirmed reports said he had already been killed by certain groups
 of people who feared his arrest would lead to the exposure of their
 involvement in the amphetamine trade.

 Chances of Surachai being found - dead or alive - , however, were
 slim, as the search teams apparently have gone their own way.

 The military source said that among the 10 hunting squads, the 13th
 Border Patrol Police unit and the task force of the 9th Infantry
 Division of the Surasi Army Camp, both based in Kanchanaburi, had
 the most advantages because they could travel inside Burma.

 But intelligence information has never been shared to police forces
 from Bangkok and some other provinces, which knew little about the
 geography of the Kanchanaburi border areas.

 The police also were concerned that crossing the border in pursuit of
 Surachai could affect Thailand's relations with Burma.

 Funding from the government for the search mission was also
 inadequate, the source said.

 He said that while the hunters were in the dark, Surachai himself may
 have already exercised his influence over the villagers and authorities
 to obtain inside information so he would be able to change his hiding

 The only threat to Surachai's life now is a group of 10 men who
 claimed to be Interior Ministry officials, who have been in Burma since
 Oct 28.

 Intelligence officials believed they were hired by big guns in the drug
 ring to silence Surachai.

 © Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 1998
 Last Modified: Sun, Nov 8, 1998
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