King Cobras take on illegals at border
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King Cobras take on illegals at border

Special army unit leads efforts to stem rise in people smuggling in Prachuap Khiri Khan

Soldiers make their way through a rubber farm as they head to the Tanaosi mountain range in Prachuap Khiri Khan where they are working to stem the inflow of illegal border crossers from Myanmar. (Photo: Wassana Nanuam)
Soldiers make their way through a rubber farm as they head to the Tanaosi mountain range in Prachuap Khiri Khan where they are working to stem the inflow of illegal border crossers from Myanmar. (Photo: Wassana Nanuam)

With the aid of technology, the Jong Ang Suek (King Cobra) Special Unit under the Surasee Taskforce works day and night to stem the inflow of illegal migrants from Myanmar across the entire length of the border in Prachuap Khiri Khan.

The relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions in the country that culminated in its reopening on Nov 1, spurred a jump in the demand for foreign workers and consequently, illegal border crossings.

Many migrant workers who had crossed the border to go home at the height of the pandemic are now anxious to return, but the process to re-enter and work in the country -- as outlined in the memorandum of understanding on labour imports with Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos -- is complicated and time-consuming.

Desperate for work, many choose to bypass the official process and enter the country illegally to take up jobs here, most of which are located in Bangkok and its surrounding provinces. As a result, the sight of migrants being rounded up along the border has become commonplace.

Halting illegal crossings is a challenging task, given the long natural border between Thailand and its neighbours. That said, most illegal crossings take place along the western border with Myanmar, where the King Cobra unit is actively scouring the border for undocumented migrants.

Dubbed the "noodle strip" province for its long and narrow shape, Prachuap Khiri Khan has eight districts that border Myanmar, with 34 natural border passes connecting the two countries. The passes usually see a spike in illegal crossings between October and November, just before the tourism high season begins.

Preventing irregular migration along these passes is crucial, especially after the first case of the Omicron Covid-19 strain was reported in Thailand on Monday.

Since the news broke, surveillance along the border has been ramped up, in response to public concerns about illegal migrants bringing the mutated coronavirus strain into the country.

Soldiers with the King Cobra unit have been patrolling the border on foot alongside soldiers from Myanmar, each responsible for spotting illegal activities on their side of the border.

Chief of the King Cobra unit, Col Assadawut Panyarachun, said many job vacancies are luring migrants to cross the border illegally, saying a migrant typically pays a job broker between 18,000-29,000 baht to secure passage.

Between October and November this year, he said, 933 migrants from Myanmar were arrested along the 282-kilometre-long border in Prachuap Khiri Khan.

To prevent illegal crossings, the unit is working together with the Border Patrol Police and paramilitary forces, the Immigration Bureau, Customs Department and local administrations.

Certain restrictions have been put in place to allow authorities to monitor the flow of foreign migrants into the country.

Workers coming in under existing labour arrangements with neighbouring countries, for instance, can only come in through designated checkpoints in Tak's Mae Sot district, Ranong, Sa Kaeo, Nong Khai and Mukdahan.

The Royal Thai Armed Forces have also deployed four companies of soldiers to reinforce border patrol operations.

Technology is also used to improve the King Cobra's efficiency on the field. Each group is equipped with night vision monoculars and drones to help detect border intrusion.

Authorities are also using intelligence gathered from statements made by arrested illegal migrants, which could be used to inform future operations.

Many migrants from Myanmar set off from the city of Myeik, from which they would trek for three days through the dense jungles of the Tanaosi and Samchan mountain ranges to reach Prachuap Khiri Khan.

Kittipong Boonjuban, an army sergeant who graduated from the Army Non-Commissioned Officer School, is a member of the King Cobra unit. In addition to defending the country's territorial integrity, he said his top priority is to keep the virus at bay.

"It's another way of protecting the country and its people," he said.

The unit is split into groups that would go on a patrol that could last several days at a time. "We don't know where we will sleep each night," he said.

During its missions, the unit is joined by forestry officials and the Border Patrol Police. "As a team, we look out for each other," he said.

A source in the Surasee Taskforce said migrant smuggling networks along the border are losing a lot of money due to the crackdown.

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