Rooting out the rosewood robbers

One giant figure has fallen, but the unravelling of one ‘phayung’ smuggling operation highlights how extensive the criminal networks are

A botched deal and a routine inspection at a police checkpoint of a white four-wheel drive vehicle led to the country’s biggest bust of an alleged Siamese rosewood smuggling kingpin.

Valuable haul: About 460 ‘phayung’ (Siamese rosewood) logs were seized in Surin province before they could be smuggled to China, where the wood can fetch up to 1.63 million baht per cubic metre. photo: post today

The arrest of Kampanart “Sia Tang” Chaiyamart on April 19 in Nakhon Ratchasima has also given forestry officials, police and environment agencies hope that progress is finally being made in the battle to stop the illegal cross-border trade of rosewood, or phayung.

But it has also shed light on the difficulties of stopping illegal logging, particularly at the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, which has seen rampant rosewood theft that threatens its World Heritage status if left unchecked.

Mr Kampanart, 31, whose sister Daorueng Chaiyamart owns the Chaiyaphum Star Tiger Zoo, who has been charged with smuggling a protected wildlife product and money laundering, is out on bail. The businessman, who told police he is of mixed Thai-Vietnamese ethnicity, has had more than 200 million baht in assets frozen for 90 days by the Anti-Money Laundering Office while investigations are undertaken. Amlo secretary-general Pol Col Seehanat Prayoonrat, who worked closely with local police on the case, detailed to Spectrum how Mr Kampanart was discovered by officers from Chok Chai Police Station, not far from the Khao Yai forest complex.

Police were going to join a checkpoint in front of the Chok Chai bus terminal about 11pm when they noticed a Mitsubishi Pajero with no licence plates and a white Toyota Vios with red licence plates parked 200m away. The cars raised their suspicions, so they asked the drivers if they could search both vehicles. The Toyota sped off, leaving the Mitsubishi Pajero driver at the scene. After talking to the driver, police learned he was Mr Kampanart and his female passenger was Wanida Wongsai. Police searched the Pajero and found 4.7 million baht in cash.

While police searched the Mitsubishi, a grey Honda car with Bangkok plates was parked nearby observing the situation. Police called for backup and interviewed the driver, Chartchai Prabchanasuek, and his passenger, Somchai Valjapo.

All four were taken to Chok Chai Police Station where police were able to confront Mr Kampanart with information obtained from the others that the cash was to buy rosewood from an illegal trader in Khon Buri, located on a northwest edge of the forest complex. Police say Mr Kampanart confessed. “We would not have been able to get Sia Tang if he had not happened by the checkpoint in Chok Chai in April,” Pol Col Seehanat said.

More information about Mr Kampanart’s multimillion-dollar smuggling operations came to light — including previous criminal investigations — raising questions about why he wasn’t stopped earlier.

“One clue led to another,” Pol Col Seehanat said. “Sia Tang is one of the big operators we have arrested. There are so many networks in Thailand smuggling Siamese rosewood to other countries and this is one of them.”

SETTING UP THE STING

At the police station, Mr Kampanart told officers he had traded rosewood with a Mr Tavorn three times before. The men in the Honda, Mr Chartchai and Mr Somchai, were paid 20,000 baht to act as lookouts while the deals were done.

Mr Kampanart said he had the 4.7 million baht in cash on him, as the latest deal with Mr Tavorn had fallen through. The dealer had promised to bring a shipment of Siamese rosewood, but instead brought along inferior Burmese rosewood (ching chan wood) which does not command as high a price from customers. Mr Kampanart refused the shipment.

But Provincial Police Commander Maj Gen Pongdej Promwijit said Mr Kampanart could have been arrested earlier.

On Jan 27, two men allegedly involved in Mr Kampanart’s network were arrested in Khon Buri district on the northwest edge of the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex in connection with the smuggling of three million baht worth of rosewood logs.

After the arrest, two other men arrived at the local police station and offered police a 1.5 million baht bribe to drop the case. Maj Gen Pongdej said police played along with the bribe offer in a bid to try and find out the mastermind of the operation.

One of the men then contacted a person identified as “Tang” and two women showed up at the police station on a motorbike with the 1.5 million baht. Once they offered the cash to police all four were arrested, but none would reveal who the financier was apart from saying it was “Tang”.

Maj Gen Pongdej said the four were charged over the bribe offer, but it was not until after the April 19 arrest that they concluded “Tang” was in fact Sia Tang, or Mr Kampanart.

WEB OF INTRIGUE

But investigators were only beginning to fathom the depths of Mr Kampanart’s alleged smuggling operations.

Widespread investigation: Some of the money seized by Amlo was found at the Chaiyaphum Star Tiger Zoo, owned by the sister of accused smuggling ringleader Kampanart ‘Sia Tang’ Chaiyamart.

The anti-money laundering agency started to look at his bank accounts and discovered that huge amounts of money had been sluiced through them over a three-year period. Pol Col Seehanat said from 2011 to 2014 more than 1.18 billion baht had been paid into the accounts and more than 320 million withdrawn.

Mr Kampanart's smuggling operations also allegedly involved rare animals, believed to be sourced from his sister's Chaiyaphum zoo, and ivory.

“We found that his operation was involved with smuggling live pangolins and elephant ivory from the south of Thailand to China,” Pol Col Seehanat alleged. “It was also involved with phayung which is in high demand from traders along the border provinces of the northeastern region — Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom and Mukdahan. We also found that there were foreigners from at least three countries involved with his operation”.

Pol Col Seehanat said they believe the cross-border network included Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam. “One of the members is a mixed-race Vietnamese-Thai guy who is linked to many networks in Vietnam,” he said without naming Mr Kampanart.

Amlo has so far seized 98 items worth 200 million baht from Mr Kampanart, including 29 cars from a car dealership he owned with his wife, six million baht in cash, 24 plots of land and other properties. A search of a house in Chaiyaphum province by Amlo officers resulted in 14 luxury women’s watches being seized.

Pol Col Seehanat told Spectrum that the Amlo search of his finances revealed that Mr Kampanart was already being investigated in four other criminal cases.

Pol Col Seehanat said police were also investigating Mr Kampanart’s political connections.

All those involved in the network are facing investigation over trading and possessing protected animals and rosewood smuggling.

STATUS UNDER THREAT

Last June, following the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) meeting in Bangkok, phayung was finally added to the Cites Appendix II after years of resistance from Thailand’s neighbours.

Inclusion in Appendix II allows for controlled international trade with set quotas and Cites permits.

But since the listing, illegal logging of phayung has continued apace at the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex. The World Heritage status of the forest is under threat due to the continued theft of phayung trees.

TANGLED WEB: The main office of the Chaiyaphum Star Tiger Zoo. Police are investigating whether Mr Kampanart used the business to launder money from his smuggling operation.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature earlier this year sent a team to inspect the forest and proposed the area be placed on a “World Heritage in Danger” list at its annual meeting in Qatar in June. The team cited ineffective management to prevent illegal logging of Siamese rosewood, which was once abundant in the area.

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) said it had tried its best to address the problem, but added it was a regional issue which could not be addressed without cooperation from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China as providers, suppliers and customers of the rare wood.

According to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency’s (EIA) UK branch “Rosewood Robbery” — which urged Thailand to pursue the Cites listing of phayung — growing Chinese demand, weak international regulations and official corruption were encouraging illegal logging across the region.

“Thailand’s rosewood loggers are incentivised by extremely lucrative prices offered by international traders for the prized wood — up to US$6,000 [196,000 baht] per cubic metre,” the report said. “Official corruption facilitates the trade at every stage, from forests to the borders or ports. In September, 2011, 12 Thai police officers were implicated in illegal operations in, and smuggling from, Thailand’s rosewood forests.”

While it's difficult to quantify the trade, the EIA said in 2010 Chinese timber traders paid $3 billion on rosewood in Vietnam alone with demand for traditional “redwood” or “Hongmu” furniture in China rising by 30-40%.

The EIA report said the finest rosewood furniture sets fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars, and as a consequence, unprocessed Siamese rosewood could fetch up to $50,000 per cubic metre in China.

Most of Thailand’s rosewood-rich forests are clustered around the northern and eastern borders, and the wood is often smuggled into Laos and Cambodia and transported to Vietnam, from where it can be shipped to end-user markets, principally China.

The EIA report also said Thailand’s rosewood was shipped via ports, notably Laem Chabang, in Chon Buri or up the Mekong into China, with fraudulent paperwork ensuring containers with their illegal cargoes are waved through.

Detection of cases also increased rapidly prior to the 2013 Cites listing, the EIA report said. In 2009, National Parks officers reportedly seized 1,222 rosewood logs, but by 2011 the seizures had quadrupled to 4,850 logs.

MORE WORK AHEAD

DNP deputy director Theerapat Prayurasiddhi acknowledged that rosewood smuggling had worsened in recent years.

He said since the plant was added to Cites Appendix II last year the DNP had taken a three-pronged approach to stopping the illegal trade through better monitoring by park rangers, stopping smugglers en route, and trying to get closer cooperation from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China.

He said the arrest of Mr Kampanart was an example of the second initiative in action and conducted with the help of local police. “This measure seems to help a lot since one of the biggest operators, Sia Tang, was arrested this way,” he added.

Mr Theerapat said the DNP also works with customs officials at ports and border crossing to try and stem the trade. Phayung has been found packed in containers waiting to be shipped from Thailand, with the majority of seizures on the Mekong River.

As a positive solution, the DNP is trying to replace the rosewood trees that have been chopped down by growing new ones in areas outside national parks. They hope that there will be abundant new rosewood plantations in Thailand in growing in 20 to 30 years.

“When this wood is fully grown, people can make use of it legally, without smuggling from national parks,” Mr Theerapat said.

While they are taking encouragement from the Kampanart case, Mr Theerapat conceded there were many similar networks still operating within Thailand.

He said the involvement of agencies such as Amlo made the case stronger and meant harsher penalties for offenders.

“There are still a lot more operations similar to Sia Tang’s case,” he said. “We will be working with the police and other government agencies to try to arrest more people.”

Luxury retreat: Top and above, the house of Daorueng Chaiyamart, Mr Kampanart’s sister, in Chaiyaphum’s Muang district was among the properties searched by Amlo. Left, Amlo found 14 luxury women’s watches in a safe at the home of Mr Kampanart’s wife.

BY THE NUMBERS: Amlo secretary-general Seehanat Prayoonrat discusses the investigation of Mr Kampanart’s case at a press conference on Tuesday. photos: Courtesy of Anti-Money Laundering Office

LOGGING IN: Officials in Si Sa Ket province retrieve ‘phayung’ logs worth 12 million baht, hidden in a paddy field in Kantharalak district. photo: bangkok post archive

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Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai
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