Local polls prompt criminal gangs' return

Local polls prompt criminal gangs' return

Incidents of political violence on the rise as candidates compete for seat, writes Wassayos Ngamkham

Police question Thawatchai Srichan, 48, left, a suspect in the Feb 14 shooting in Nakhon Nayok, which left a deputy chairman of the Bang Somboon tambon administrative organisation dead and the TAO chairman injured. (Police photo)
Police question Thawatchai Srichan, 48, left, a suspect in the Feb 14 shooting in Nakhon Nayok, which left a deputy chairman of the Bang Somboon tambon administrative organisation dead and the TAO chairman injured. (Police photo)

Bringing back local elections after more than seven years comes with a renewed sense of fear in Nakhon Nayok where a tambon administrative organisation (TAO) head was wounded and his deputy killed in a recent attack.

On the evening of Feb 14, at least two gunmen using assault weapons attacked a van carrying TAO members in Nakhon Nayok, in the country's Central Plains.

The deputy chairman of Bang Somboon TAO, Somchai Muang-kard, 63, and his driver, Watchara Nutdaeng, 52, were killed in the attack. TAO chairman Yannakorn Thorprayoon, 44, who was also travelling in the van, was shot and seriously wounded.

It is not every day that the Royal Thai Police (RTP) mobilises more than 100 investigators to work on a case, but it is doing so for this one.

National police chief Suwat Jangyodsuk signed an order to appoint a probe team and transferred the case from local police to the Crime Suppression Division (CSD).

The high-profile nature of the case warranted a swift police response as it was a brazen act of crime involving senior office-holders.

After the attack, the police spent the next seven days piecing together the crime before identifying at least three suspects and seeking warrants for their arrest.

There are still others who colluded in the shootout, according to Pol Gen Suwat.

Police managed to arrest three suspects but stopped short of divulging the others' identities. Officers returned to the shooting scene and scoured the place for evidence, retrieving several spent bullet shells.

Back at a police lab, footage from a video camera installed in the van was reviewed. It captured the gunmen's vehicle, a Mitsubishi that tailgated the van before driving alongside it.

The occupants opened fire, causing the driver of the van to lose control and crash the vehicle into a roadside ditch.

Police agreed the attack was well-planned.

On Feb 21, senior officials from the Provincial Police Region 2 (PPR2) and the CSD met investigators from a team supervised by deputy national police Pol Gen Suchart Theerasawasdi to devise a plan to gather evidence.

The officials later announced that arrest warrants had been issued for three people in connection with the shootout.

The three are Rattapol Tansuwannarat, 35, alias Kumarn Khao (white boy); Phuriwat Nimrueng, 52, dubbed Kumarn Dam (black boy); and Thawatchai Srichan, 48, they said.

The three men are natives of Nakhon Nayok and knew those they attacked well.

On Feb 22, Pol Maj Gen Theeradet Thammasuthee, commander of investigations at the PPR2, led a combined group of police, including CSD agents, on a raid on three locations to search for suspects.

They went to a house in tambon Bang Somboon of Ongkharak district belonging to Mr Rattapol only to find his wife there.

The woman said he had left the house on Feb 19. Police seized a mobile phone and a Honda sedan Mr Rattapol allegedly drove before switching to the Mitsubishi pickup truck used in the shooting.

Police also raided a house with no registration number, also in tambon Bang Somboon. The house is owned by Mr Phuriwat who fled before the police arrived.

The investigators also stormed a third house in tambon Sri Chula of Muang district where they captured Mr Thawatchai and seized from him a rifle, pistol, a GPS vehicle-tracking device and fake licence plate.

Mr Thawatchai admitted he was close to Prasobchok Nimruang, former chairman of Bang Somboon TAO, who was also a suspect in the case although no warrant has been released for his arrest.

Police suspect Mr Thawatchai supplied the firearms to the gunmen and procured the Mitsubishi car.

Mr Rattapol, an employee at the Bang Somboon TAO, was alleged by police to have pulled the trigger while Mr Phuriwat drove the Mitsubishi.

On Feb 24, Mr Phuriwat, accompanied by his lawyer, turned himself in to the Dong Lakon police although he denied any role in the attack.

On the same day, Pol Gen Suwat formally named the investigation team headed by Pol Lt Gen Sompong Chingduang, assistant national police chief. The team also includes six other police lieutenant generals from the PPR2, the Central Investigation Bureau and the Central Police Forensic Science Office.

Under the team, more than 100 investigators are being put to work to get to the bottom of the case.

According to the RTP, the team had to be organised on a large scale as the crime was a coordinated act implicating influential figures.

Being put on the spot is Mr Prasobchok who denied he masterminded the attack.

Last week, Mr Prasobchok said there were no mafia-like figures in the Bang Somboon area. He admitted he knew Mr Phuriwat, a relative.

As he once served as TAO chairman, he knew other members and staff, including Mr Rattapol.

He personally believed Mr Phuriwat was not involved and would offer surety for bail for his relative's release.

He was speaking at a press conference held at the Thai Local Power Party head office led by Chatchawal Kong-udom.

He insisted he was not trying to be seen as taking cover under Mr Chatchawal's influence.

Mr Prasobchok said he serves as a Thai Local Power executive and comes to the party regularly.

Meanwhile, Pol Maj Gen Theeradet maintained certain areas of Nakhon Nayok are run by mafia. Few witnesses were willing to step out and give statements about the shootout.

"Here everybody knows everybody," he said.

Seven years after the 2014 coup, local elections had remained suspended, which for a while had kept the conflict over local power under wraps, according to the PPR2's chief of investigation.

However, with the return of the local polls last year, many new leaders were elected, which pitted them against previous leaders.

Mr Yannakorn, the new Bang Somboon TAO chairman, has been probing graft in the TAO.

This may well be the motive behind the attack.

The CSD's handling of the investigation also relieved many of the concerns that the case may be manipulated by local mafias.

Contact Crime Track: www.crimetrack@bangkokpost.co.th

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