Bordering on a bootleg crisis
The discovery of illegal arms from Cambodia in Trat have people questioning where authorities draw the line with traffickers
On a day of heavy downpour, Rapiphat was starting his morning by cleaning the front of his one-storey shophouse that sells construction equipment in Trat province. Afterwards, while sipping coffee at the kitchen table, he spotted a truck hurtling along the road coming from the Cambodian border towards Trat town at high speed. That's when his otherwise normal morning took a turn.
Watching from his window, he saw the truck overshoot a curve and drive off the side of the road.
Rapiphat's acted on his instincts -- he ran to the driver and offered him help.
"I saw the driver slowly crawl out from his truck," he recalls of the scene. "When I got closer, I saw four guns lying in the street. He told me not to panic about them because he was a military officer. I saw a badge at the front of his truck indicating that he really was a military officer and then I offered him help."
With its treacherous roads, Rapiphat has seen his fair share of accidents in the area. However, there was something especially disconcerting about this one.
Upon peering into the truck, he saw that there were a lot more weapons on board than just the four guns lying out on the ground.
STOPPED IN TRACKS
The scenic Trat-Hat Lek road running through the countryside is the only road that leads directly from Trat city to the Cambodian border. The main road is used by all types of vehicles, and is a steadily busy site.
As one drives away from Trat city towards Cambodia, the road starts to narrow and green mountains rise up from the landscape -- a geographical marker of the border between Thailand and Cambodia. On the right side of the road is the Gulf of Thailand where popular holiday spots Koh Kood and Koh Mak are located.
The road leads to Baan Hat Lek, a Thai village located at the Cambodian border, which is host to a large immigration checkpoint.
On June 3 at 7.40 am, when Rapiphat witnessed the truck accident, he bolted to go help the driver, who seemed to have suffered only a minor injury. He proceeded to invite the driver indoors to wash off the mud from his body.
Rapiphat's house is located on Trat–Hat Lek road. He lives along the Thailand-Cambodia border, roughly 30 kilometres away from the Baan Hat Lek crossing point.
Once Rapiphat escorted the man inside his house, villagers begun to come knocking on his door, concerned about the sight of the crash.
The man told villagers his name was Pakin and that he was a First Class Flight Sergeant from the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) in Bangkok.
"He told me that he was 1FS Pakin Detchphong," said Rapiphat. "He said he was an air force officer in Lop Buri and an intelligence officer from ISOC in Bangkok.
"He showed me his card and I believed him. He told me that he was on his way back to Bangkok before the accident happened."
Using his ten-wheeler truck, Rapiphat pulled Pakin's truck from the side of the road and towed it to park in front of his house.
Meanwhile, local military officials were headed down Trat-Hat Lek Road, having received an intelligence tip about a smuggler's truck headed for Trat. Later, police officers started to pull up to Rapiphat's place too. Then they took Pakin away.
EASY COME, EASY GO
PHOTOS: JAKKRIT WAEWHONG
Trat is one of seven provinces located along the Cambodian border. The province operates under martial law due to its proximity to Cambodia.
Of the province's seven districts, only three -- Khao Saming, Laem Ngop and downtown Trat -- are not under martial law as they do not touch the border of Cambodia.
Trat's only major border crossing point Baan Hat Lek can be crossed by presenting an ID card and passport.
As a bustling shopping hub, Cambodian citizens cross the border to go to Baan Hat Lek on a daily basis to visit the local market.
Cham Yeam, on the Cambodian side of the border, has one casino hotel that is walking distance from the Thai border, which many Thais are known to take advantage of.
Spectrum spoke to shop owners in Hat Lek and learned that the majority of their customers come from Cambodia, although some Thais do go there for shopping.
Besides the regular daily shoppers, Hat Lek is also a crossing point for many VIPs -- people who are exempted from official >> >> immigration processes.
An immigration officer who wanted to remain anonymous told Spectrum that local police and military officers in Trat and neighbouring provinces have an unofficial agreement with Cambodian officials to let certain people cross the states' border without being screened as per regular immigration procedures.
"We will be informed in advance that a car with a particular licence plate number and a pass attached to the front of it has been given permission to enter the border checkpoint and military checkpoints without having to declare any travel documents," the officer explained.
"As long as we know which vehicle to look for and are informed in advance, we will let that VIP vehicle simply drive through the checkpoints unchecked," he added.
According to Hat Lek immigration data, the number of private cars with Cambodian licence plates entering Thailand from the Hat Lek border checkpoint last year was 3,071. 2,963 cars have been recorded as leaving Thailand in the same year.
Special treatment is further granted to people who have exclusive access to secret military camps which have accelerated routes to Cambodia. To access these routes, one has to earn preauthorisation by the local military beforehand.
GETTING ARMS AROUND THE LAW
After Pakin Detchphong's truck slid off the road, Rapiphat made a phone call to an immigration official stationed at the Thai-Cambodia border to report the suspicious findings inside the truck.
The military arrived, shortly followed by the police. Two hours after the accident, a white SUV with a Cambodian licence plate pulled up to the scene and slowly circled the area. The driver did not get out of the car, but left the area shortly after arriving.
Noticing the vehicle, the police deemed it suspicious and called a nearby military checkpoint to stop it.
The two men in the SUV were tracked down and identified as Pisid Lieng, a 29-year-old man who told police he was an immigration officer from Cambodia, and Jakkraphong Kraikraing, a 37-year-old man from Trat. The police arrested the two, alongside Pakin, on suspicions of weapons smuggling.
In Pakin's black truck, the police found 39 AK-47, four machine guns, 4,142 bullets for AK-47s, 30 side saddles for AK-47, three side saddles for M16s, four side saddles for machine guns, six bullets for AK-47s, 54 bullets for M79s, one hand grenade, 10 9mm bullets, two licence plates registered in Khon Kaen province and one radio set.
After interrogating the suspects, the police learned from Pakin that Pisid had brought all the weapons from Cambodia on June 2 by using his VIP status to get through the checkpoints, including the central one at Hat Lek.
He allegedly drove about 18 kilometres from the Hat Lek border to stay overnight at Taweesak Kittiya Resort in the Khlong Yai district of Trat. Pakin then met Pisid at the resort. According to Pakin and CCTV images taken at the resort, the vehicles of the two suspects were parked there on the same night.
A Trat-based reporter name Krit told Spectrum that this was not the first case of reported weapons smuggling from Cambodia. Back in 2013, the police found six machine guns buried on a beach where the Thai-Cambodian border rests. In 2015, the police also arrested a man who had smuggled an AK47 over the border into Thailand.
"Since it's easy for VIP vehicles from Cambodia to get into Thailand without being checked, it's easy for smugglers to operate in this area," Krit said. "There's even evidence that Mr Pisid came in and out of the country more than 200 times this year. Who knows how many weapons have been smuggled into this country up until today?"
Since the majority of Trat is under martial law, the military has played an active role in handling the most recent weapons smuggling case. When the three suspects were brought in for interrogation at the Baan Tha Luean police station, Pisid was separated from the other two men. Both military officials and police officers did their own interrogations.
Pakin told police interrogators that he was the only one involved in the operation, denying links to larger smuggling operations in Thailand. Pisid denied any involvement with arms smuggling activity at all. He told police that he was simply passing through the area that day.
After the interrogation, the police received a tip from an unnamed source that a weapons smuggling operation would be underway in the area. The source offered details like the licence plate number and the colour of the truck to look for. As soon as the police identified Pakin's vehicle, they followed it to Rapiphat's house. The drivers were stopped and summoned for questioning.
Pakin told the police he had got the weapons from a Cambodian man whose name he did not know. He was planning to take the weapons to Mae Sai to sell them to an unspecified individual from Myanmar.
Meanwhile, Pisid and Jakkrit have continued to deny any involvement with the case. They say that they were driving towards the Cambodian border to go home that day. The military from the Kho Lan 3rd Military Base have also released a report of their interrogation. The report states that they military was the first to be informed about the accident since several weapons were found in the suspect's truck.
The military officers arrived at the scene first and recalled spotting Pisid's vehicle driving off suspiciously. They accordingly ordered military officers at a nearby checkpoint to stop his vehicle.
Pakin told the military that he had got the weapons from a high-ranking military officer along the Khao Wong border, an area protected by the Thai military with no public access. He was planning to take the weapons to sell to the Wa State Army in Myanmar.
He further told the officers that this was his third time smuggling weapons into the area. If he hadn't crashed the vehicle, he was positive he wouldn't have been arrested.
The three suspects are now in the Trat Provincial Prison pending trial for the case.
Pol Lt Gen Jitti Rodbangyang, the Commissioner of Provincial Police Region 2, told Spectrum that there has been big progress in the case's investigation but he can't reveal any additional information at this point.
"We have made huge progress on this case," Lt Gen Jitti explained. "We handle all our cases carefully. I can't reveal whether this case is involved with bigger operations or not yet.
"But what I can confirm is that we are working hard to determine the real perpetrators behind this act. As it stands, we have charged these three suspects with the possession of illegal weapons."
Ammunition mission: In Pakin's truck, police found 39 AK-47s, four machine guns and one hand grenade, among other weapons suspected to be intended for selling to Myanmar's Wa State Army. จักรกฤชณ์ แววคล้ายหงษ์
On the line: The mountains marking the Thailand-Cambodia border on Trat-Hat Lek road. The road is suspected to be a key piece of infrastructure in facilitating arms smuggling over the border. PHOTO: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI
At cross-purposes: A checkpoint at the Thailand-Cambodia border. According to locals, immigration procedures are not rigorously executed. PHOTO: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI
In deep water: The coast of Cambodia as viewed from Thailand's southern Trat province. Much of the province is governed by martial law due to its proximity to the Cambodian border. PHOTO: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI
PHOTOS: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI
Last resort: The Taweesak Kittiya Resort in the Khlong Yai district of Trat where Pakin allegedly collected smuggled weapons from Pisid Lieng.
Special access: The entrance to an army camp that offers fast routes to Cambodia. Only passengers approved by the army can use these routes.