Policing a rogue's island paradise
special report: Israeli man's death raises fears of mafia activity on Samui
A recent deadly brawl on Koh Samui has galvanised authorities into launching checks on rogue activities which they fear have taken root on the resort island.
After the Jan 21 murder in broad daylight of Israeli Maor Malul, 33, on a Samui street, police detained Israeli nationals Dolev Zuaretz, 24, right, and Eyal Bokal, 26, as they were about to leave Thailand via Don Mueang airport. (See video below; photo by Apichit Jinakul)
While the island in Surat Thani has earned a reputation for being a tourist paradise, it may also be a hideout for transnational criminals fleeing justice overseas and as a haven for foreign nationals to run mafia-style businesses.
The incident of an Israeli man killed by his compatriots in a quarrel in Koh Samui on Jan 21 was among issues tabled at a recent meeting between state officials and local businesses to discuss ways to bolster security on the island.
The murder that shocked Samui was captured on a CCTV camera, which helped police to identify and arrest two suspects before they could leave the country.
"Authorities must conduct a more thorough screening of foreigners entering Surat Thani," Surat Thani police chief Aphichat Bunsirot told 200 participants during the meeting which reviewed immigration control practices and discussed stricter measures to prevent illegal activities on Koh Samui and elsewhere in the province.
The ultimate aim is to make Koh Samui a safe destination. On Jan 21, two Israeli men rammed their car into a motorcycle ridden by Maor Mallil and stabbed him to death. Police believed the killing was motivated by personal conflict. The victim was met by his two rivals -- Eyal Buekel and Dolev Zuarets -- by chance during his vacation on Koh Samui.
Mallil was locked in bitter conflict with the two men back in Israel and when they bumped into one another on Koh Samui, they engaged in a brawl in which Mallil was stabbed to death. The authorities are looking into whether conflicts involving other foreign nationals staying in Koh Samui originated in other countries.
Last year, a foreign man filed a complaint with Koh Samui police claiming an Israeli gang extorted money from foreign business operators on the island. The complainant, who was not identified, said the gang had threatened business owners with guns and demanded a protection fee.
A video clip of the gang and photos of its members carrying guns were handed to police as evidence. An initial check found some gang members, believed to be influential figures, came from Chon Buri.
On July 7, a combined team of police, military officers and local officials raided various locations on Koh Samui in a crackdown on foreign gangs. The team found one gang was using an illegal medical clinic as their secret meeting venue. In the five-bed clinic, authorities seized firearms and ammunition including a .22-calibre pistol and 85 rounds of bullets.
Israeli national Netanel Hadad, who ran the clinic, told police he had no idea who the weapons belong to. He said he had only a BB air gun. The 34-year-old man said his clinic, which was financed by donations, provided tree treatment to his compatriots who had an accident on Koh Samui. On his spare time, he also did volunteer jobs. The initial investigation found no clear evidence to implicate Mr Hadad on charges of providing shelter to criminal suspects. However, police were keeping watch on long-stay foreign nationals.
Seni Phuwasetthawon, deputy chairman of the Tourism Association of Koh Samui, wants authorities to prevent deadly clashes involving foreign nationals as the dispute could stem from mafia influence that goes beyond personal conflict. Frequent fatal disputes would hurt Koh Samui's tourism, which is one of the island's main sources of income, Mr Seni warned.
Koh Samui is also a major generator of tourism revenue in the South. In 2016, it attracted 1.9 million foreign tourists raking in 49 billion baht, up 18% from the previous year, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Of the foreign visitors to Koh Samui, about 55,000 of them are Israelis, said Nongyao Chirandon, chief of the TAT office on Koh Samui.
Many businesses on the island are foreign-owned and those belonging to Israeli nationals are growing extensively, a local source said. Nothing was "amiss" with the foreign-owned businesses on the island. However, authorities were checking the backgrounds of some foreign nationals, especially those who have lived for months or years.
Mr Seni suggested authorities zero in on suspicious characters and keep a close eye on them. Consistent efforts are needed to prevent criminals hatching plans to commit crimes and run illegal businesses, he said.
Last October, deputy Tourist Police Bureau chief Pol Maj Gen Surachet Hakphal launched an operation to raid eight spots on Koh Samui and caught many foreign nationals overstaying their visas and using the island as a hideout.
Police are studying intelligence reports and scouring for information about the foreign nationals' activities. Deputy national police chief Wirachai Songmetta said police were conducting in-depth inspections on whether certain Israelis were trying to form organised criminal syndicates Koh Samui.
Meanwhile, the two Israeli attackers in last month's murder have been remanded in custody.