The announcement that the Anti-Money Laundering Office (Amlo) is to become an independent body was sudden and rather surprising. A draft law was approved by the National Council for Peace and Order, but there was no public notice or debate. The new arrangement removes Amlo from the Justice Ministry and makes one of the most powerful enforcement agencies in the country even more potent.
The only explanation offered was that an independent Amlo would no longer be influenced by politicians. The aim is clear; the reasoning is not. Amlo was formed under the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 1999. Almost from the start, it was a success. Its main goal was to stop criminals from enjoying the fruits of their crimes and corruption — to prove, in fact, that crime does not pay. It was also charged with building relations with similar international agencies.
In its 15 years, Amlo has built a strong reputation of effective leadership, clean and incorruptible staff and police. Criminals fear it, the courts support it. If there has been political interference in its work, few have noticed. Amlo, armed with increased powers over the years, has seized tens of billions of baht in bank accounts, cash and assets ranging from palatial homes to luxury cars, boats and wardrobes.
Its special power to seize first, ask questions later allows Amlo agents to take away private property from owners who are suspected of crimes — but long before they are convicted or, in many cases, even arrested.
Last week, the full power of Amlo was on display in a case initiated by authorities of the Netherlands. Foreign police were tracking a Dutchman and his Thai wife accused of running an international marijuana smuggling ring. Before their arrest, Amlo seized 10 bank accounts totalling 20 million baht in the couple's names. Amlo agents seized houses and condos in at least two provinces, three cars worth 30 million baht, gold and even two guns. Then they were arrested.
It was a typical action for Amlo, although a larger than usual haul of suspected gains from crime. Since 1999, Amlo has had hundreds of such seizures. There have been no public complaints about political interference. Nor have there been charges that any government in the past 15 years has used Amlo inappropriately against, say, political opponents.
Justice permanent secretary Chanchao Chaiyanukij announced the move after military authorities signed the papers. He said three additional laws approved by the NCPO make Amlo the supreme power on all money-laundering cases of any kind. One of them even gives Amlo the power to investigate any ministry. Amlo secretary-general Seehanart Prayoonrat said it merely gives his agency more flexibility, not more power. But then he asked for more power to bring Thailand into compliance with international oversight from the Financial Action Task Force.
Pol Col Seehanart said a nine-person board will replace the minister of justice as Amlo's overseer. There is no indication as to who appoints the board or who is eligible to serve. Before matters go further, the NCPO should make clear that the board must include public organisations.
The public has trusted Amlo for 15 years for two reasons — its own conduct and its accountability. Now the new arrangement puts a huge amount of arbitrary power in the hands of the organisation, and so it is even more important to strengthen its accountability. The NCPO must make clear that the board must include civil society organisations. A powerful organisation without strong oversight can easily backfire.