Have you ever lost your passport on holiday? The illegal trade in forged and doctored travel documents props up criminal activity all around the world: from human trafficking to terrorism
• Italian's passport used to board flight MH370 was stolen in Phuket
On 30 November 2010, a 39-year-old Pakistani national named Muhammed Ather "Tony" Butt was detained with his Thai girlfriend, Sirikalya Kitbamrung, as they were crossing into Laos from the north-eastern Thai province of Nong Khai. Later that same day, officers from Thailand's Department of Special Investigations arrested a second Pakistani, Zezan Azzan Butt, 27, in the Rat Burana district of Bangkok. At about the same time, on the other side of the globe, Spanish police were swooping on a series of addresses in Barcelona, arresting six Pakistanis and one Nigerian.
The raids were the culmination of a major joint operation, codenamed Alpha, between Thai and Spanish investigators, prompted by the discovery that a suspected member of the al-Qaida-inspired terror cell responsible for several attacks in Madrid – including the 2004 M-11 train bombings, which killed 191 people and left 1,800 injured – was travelling on a false passport.
Information from that suspect would lead, several years later, to the arrest in September 2009 of an Iranian-born Briton, Ahboor Rambarak Fath, at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport – and, eventually, to Tony Butt. Stopped as he got off a flight from Spain, Fath was carrying a bag of 103 stolen European, Canadian and Israeli passports destined, he confessed, for the veritable "small forgery factory" that police found at Butt's apartment in the hours after his arrest.
In one room of the flat, an unnamed DSI agent told the Bangkok Post, officers discovered computers, a high-definition scanner and printer, and more than 1,000 stolen passports, photographs and counterfeit data pages for EU, Canadian, Chinese and Israeli passports, plus assorted sets of US and Schengen visa stickers and stamps.
Butt was, in the words of DSI deputy director-general Narat Savetnant, "the kingpin" of a major international gang that stole and falsified passports and then sold them to international criminal groups involved in arms trafficking, human trafficking, illegal immigration – and terrorism. Beside the Madrid bombers, the gang also allegedly supplied passports to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba group, accused of plotting the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 164 people dead and more than 300 injured, and to Tamil Tiger separatists in Sri Lanka.
Theft of passports in Thailand – and particularly in Phuket – is a 'regular occurrence'
There is, of course, no evidence that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which disappeared Friday 7 March just over an hour into its flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, was the victim of a terror attack. But news that two of the passengers on the flight were travelling on passports stolen in Thailand – one belonging to Italian Luigi Maraldi, who lost it last August when he left it as collateral for a motorbike rented in Phuket, and the other to Austrian Christian Kozel, who reported his lost in the same area some 18 months earlier – has focused attention on the country's booming trade in stolen and falsified passports.
Some, certainly, have ended up in the hands of terrorists. In June 2012, the month that Butt was sentenced to 15 years in jail, the DSI smashed another major counterfeiting syndicate, this one accused of issuing some 3,000 falsified passports and visas over the five years of its existence, two of them to Iranians convicted of carrying out a series of botched bomb attacks in Bangkok in February 2012, supposedly aimed at Israeli diplomats. (The counterfeiting gang's alleged ringleader, Iranian-born Seyed Paknejad, 45, was arrested but jumped bail and fled, on a fake Turkish passport, to Malaysia – where he was re-arrested last year carrying a startling 17 stolen New Zealand passports. Thailand has subsequently asked for his extradition.)
The gangs have targeted Thailand mainly because of the very large numbers of European, US and Australian holidaymakers who travel there every year. But the Bangkok Post's interview with an unnamed DSI agent quoted him as saying the country was also attractive because it is relatively easy to enter and leave; "you can negotiate with some law enforcement people"; and – importantly – some local officials have not tended to see the forgery of foreign (as opposed to Thai) passports as a particularly serious offence.
The business reportedly originated in the early 80s, when Thai criminal gangs employed hotel staff, tour guides and sex workers to steal not just tourists' traveller's cheques but also their passports, without which cheques could not be cashed. Once credit cards started replacing traveller's cheques, the gangs used the expertise they had already gained in the sophisticated techniques of document falsification to become full-service fake document providers, importing passports, driving licences and ID cards from abroad, doctoring them, and selling to anyone prepared to pay.
Two passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 were travelling on passports stolen in Thailand
One DSI agent, Tinawut Slilapat told Bangkok expat magazine The Big Chilli in 2012 that "around 20" groups, often headed by criminals from south Asia or the Middle East, are currently engaged in various forms of passport fraud in Thailand. They use passports stolen in Thailand but also in countries such as Spain, France and Belgium, add new photographs, data pages and signatures, and sell to customers who either travel to Thailand to buy the documents or send couriers. Almost all the passports are used to commit crimes outside Thailand, Tinawut told the magazine.
He said an undoctored stolen passport – increasingly used by the gangs, who are now dealing in such high volumes that they can afford simply to wait until a potential client shows up of approximately the right age and appearance – typically sells for between $1,500 and $3,000, depending on its condition, nationality, and the number of years it has left to run. Italian, British, Spanish and other European passports fetch about $1,000, Tinawut said, while Israeli passports cost $1,500-$2,000 and Canadian can go for up to $3,000.
"There is still huge demand for passports, and identity fraud is a tool to support other criminal activities," Tinawut said. "We are talking about a very lucrative revenue source for criminal organisations." A Hong Kong-based risk consultant, Steve Vickers, confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that "counterfeiting of all sorts of identifications is very widespread, particularly out of Thailand. So it's pretty easy to pick up a stolen or a counterfeit passport."
Visitors to the south-east Asian country would certainly be advised to watch out for their passports. According to the Foreign Office, some 600 British passports were stolen there in 2012-13, making it the seventh most likely country to lose a British passport (revealingly, in light of Butt's connections, the country that tops the list is Spain, where more than 5,600 British passports were reported missing last year). A former Australian consul, Larry Cunningham, told the South China Morning Post that the theft of passports in Thailand – and particularly in Phuket – is a "regular occurrence".
Some passports were certainly lost, Cunningham said, "falling out of pockets or being genuinely misplaced. But there were also substantial incidents of passports being stolen." A quick scroll through travellers' internet forums, such as Lonely Planet, shows countless anguished stories of passports lost and presumed stolen – often from car and motorbike rental agencies. When Maraldi, who called his family to tell them reports of his death on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 had been greatly exaggerated, asked the bike shop where he had left it for his passport back, he was told it had already been handed over to an Italian man who "said Mr Maraldi was his husband".
But a stolen and doctored passport will only work as a travel document if nobody checks it. Both Kozel and Maraldi reported their passports as stolen and the thefts were duly recorded in Interpol's database of Lost and Stolen Travel Documents (LSTD). Created after the September 11, 2001 terror attack on New York and Washington, the LSTD database now has some 40m entries. The inter-governmental police cooperation organisation says this weekend it is searched more than 800m times a year, mainly by the US, which accessed it 250m times, the UK (120m) and the UAE (50m).
'Last year, passengers were able to board planes more than a billion times without having their passports screened against Interpol's databases'
Authorities in many other countries, however, appear to search the database far less often, or not at all.
"Last year," the agency said, "passengers were able to board planes more than a billion times without having their passports screened against Interpol's databases ... Unfortunately, few member countries systematically search these databases to determine whether a passenger is using a stolen or lost travel document to board a plane." Interpol said that in the case of Flight MH370: "No checks of the stolen Austrian and Italian passports were made by any country between the time they were entered into Interpol's database and the departure of the flight."
International border control authorities were last reminded to tighten up procedures in 2010, when an Air India Express flight crashed on landing in Mangalore and it transpired that 10 of the 158 passengers and crew on board – all of whom were killed – had been travelling on forged or stolen documents, leading to serious concerns about security checks in Dubai, where the flight originated. Ronald Noble, Interpol's secretary general, was scathing this weekend about the evident lack of any such checks when passengers boarded Flight MH370.
"Whilst it is too soon to speculate about any connection between these stolen passports and the missing plane, it is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in Interpol's databases," Noble said.
"For years, Interpol has asked why countries should wait for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates. Now we have a real case where the world is speculating whether the stolen passport holders were terrorists, while Interpol is asking why only a handful of countries are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights.
"If Malaysia Airlines and all airlines worldwide were able to check the passport details of prospective passengers against Interpol's database, we would not have to speculate."
Hundreds of passports are believed to be lost or stolen every year in a black-market racket on tourist island of Phuket
• How Thailand's trade in fake passports fuels crime gangs around the world
The Italian national who was believed to be on flight MH370 has told Thai police that his passport went missing last year from a motorbike rental shop on the tourist island of Phuket, where hundreds of passports are thought to be lost or stolen every year in a black-market racket.
Luigi Maraldi, 37, said he was on holiday last summer when he left his passport at an undisclosed rental shop in Patong, the resort island's tourist centre, only to discover when he later went to collect it that the shop owner had handed it over to a man who "looked similar".
Passports are often asked in exchange for car and motorbike rentals in Phuket – visited by 12 million tourists every year – but the island is a hotbed of identity theft, and complaints of stolen and lost passports are rife.
According to Italian honorary consul Francesco Pensato said: "We have 250,000 [Italian] tourists a season, so it's normal that [some] lose a passport."
Pensato confirmed that Maraldi had had his passport stolen in Phuket in July last year, and that the number of the passport used to board the flight was the same as that of the stolen passport – ruling out any possibility that there was another Luigi Maraldi with the same date of birth who may have been on board.
Christian Kozel, the 30-year-old Austrian citizen listed on the flight's manifest, also had his passport stolen two years ago during a flight from Phuket to Bangkok, the Austrian foreign ministry said.
Malaysian officials are now using CCTV footage to try to identify the two travellers, while investigators are also looking into reports that another two passengers may have been travelling on false documents.
Just why the men posing as the Italian and Austrian would have used the false documents is still unclear. Terrorism is a possibility, but so is asylum: six Syrians hoping to seek refugee status in Sweden have been detained for over a month at Phuket's international airport after attempting to fly to Stockholm via Beijing on Greek passports. Local media outlet Phuketwan reported that the group said they had chosen to fly through Phuket and Beijing because other refugees had reached Sweden using the same flight path.
The two men on board MH370 had booked onward flights via Beijing to Amsterdam, and then Copenhagen for the "Italian", and Frankfurt for the "Austrian". The two men seem to have purchased their one-way tickets at the same time from a travel agency in the Thai beach town Pattaya on Thursday.
Both Kozel's and Maraldi's passports had been reported stolen and were listed in Interpol's database, yet the airline did not cross-check the 40m-record database to confirm whether any passengers on flight MH370 were flying on dubious documents.
Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna from Singapore's Nanyang Technological University said there were only two categories of travellers using stolen passports: criminals and terrorists.
"To blame Malaysian authorities for this is probably unfair – they have to get it right all the time and potential hijackers just have to get through once," he added.
Malaysia Airlines officials told a press conference on Sunday that terrorism was being investigated as a reason why the plane may have tried to turn back, as reports of potential serious lapses in security at Kuala Lumpur International airport emerged.
Just a few months ago, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and police formed a "flying squad" to address allegations of immigration officers accepting bribes to allow illegal immigrants into the country. At the same time human trafficking gangs were reportedly selling a "Get into Malaysia package" for £450, in return for which the buyer was smuggled into the country and given a fake "MyKad", the compulsory identity document for Malaysian citizens.
Malaysia's deputy home minister, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, said the government does not deny that "there may be some black sheep among the staff" and added: "Generally, they are good, efficient and honest officers. We will not allow them to be condemned, nor will the department be condemned because of the actions of a few."
The US is expected to investigate the stolen passports once the FBI arrives in Malaysia to assist with the investigation.
However, one application to enter the senatorial race was rejected by the Phuket Election Commission (PEC).
“The application filed by Siripong Luangchawee was rejected because he resigned as a member of the Pheu Thai Party only last year,” PEC Director Kittipong Thiengkunakrit explained. Read more...
The rampant confusion over the putative secessionist movement calling for an independent state of Lanna in the north of Thailand is no more than you can expect in a country besotted with acronyms.
The website of the Lanna Assembly for the Defence of Democracy has been adamant that they have nothing to do with the idea of secession. They are merely the northern branch of a network of academics who have been taken upon themselves the herculean task of reading the constitution, listening to the rantings of PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban, and pointing out where the one cannot coexist with the other.
Unfortunately, their Thai name, samacha pokpong prachathipatai, gets acronymized to So Po Po. But So Po Po is also the acronym that comes before ‘Lao’, standing for satharanarat prachathipatai prachachon. (At least this is what the domineering Thais will tell you; in truth and in Lao, it is sathalanalat pasathipatai pasason.) (And stop sniggering, you oh-so-superior Thais.)
But whatever. So Po Po Lao means ‘Lao PDR’ which, the encyclopaedia tells you, stands incongruously for ‘People’s Democratic Republic’. Except those who have actually been there say it really means ‘Please Don’t Rush’.
So when a random reporter asked a random woman on a motorbike in Chiang Mai what the So Po Po Lanna on her headband meant, the answer was along the lines of the misleading name of our ‘little brother’ neighbours rather than the earnest academics.
Enter full of wrath and indignation the Thai military, an organization especially sensitive to territorial integrity. After all, the Thai armed forces owe their existence to this concept. Not that they were expected to protect the motherland from foreign enemies – at the time these were colonial powers against whom they stood no chance. The real need was to give territorial reality to the newly imagined Siamese state and to create national institutions to bolster this idea.
Square-bashing then as now was as much ideological as military. The idea was to instil in the heads of northeastern conscripts that they were not Lao, as they thought, but Siamese. The fact that they could also be used for suppressing internal dissent (often from people who were not too keen on becoming Siamese as in today’s Deep South) was all to the good.
The army has taken the line that even when it is deliberately misread, So Po Po Lanna is far too dangerous an idea to let pass. Time for maximum bluster and bullying.
But the misunderstanding of acronyms seems to have been catching. Take, for example, the sharply-worded message from the PDRC to the Financial Institutions Development Fund of the Bank of Thailand. This complains of violently biased coverage and demands the withdrawal of their southeast Asian correspondent.
Now the FIDF normally shrinks any publicity of any kind and was at a loss to understand this. Until one bright spark remembered the Bangkok Bank for Commerce, a highly corrupt enterprise whose dodgy loans to themselves, select politicians and even BoT officials led to its demise over 15 years ago, when its business was taken over by the FIDF. It seems that the PDRC had confused one BBC with another.
The FIDF, relieved for once not to be guilty as charged, quickly sent a reply exonerating themselves. To the Primary Dispute Resolution Centre of the Singaporean courts. They realized their error when their envelope came back with a very snitty comment written on it. So they re-addressed it to the Physical Disabilities Resource Centre of a local hospital.
Not to be outdone, the UDD, noting the 3 years and counting that the National Anti-Corruption Commission has taken over rice-buying malfeasance charges against former PM Abhisit compared to lightning speed with which they have dealt with Yingluck’s case, shot off a regular ‘double standards’ complaint to the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. (Didn’t it worry them when the Post Office told them it would cost foreign postage?)
We at Prachatai are of course immune from such solecisms. This is why we have studiously ignored a letter threatening to close us down if we don’t kill off this Alien Thoughts column from some outfit calling themselves the CMPO. I mean, why should we listen to China Motor Parts Online?Read more...
A Nakhon Sri Thammarat inmate, Kee Honzaitong, tipped police off about members of a drug network transporting ya ice from Bangkok to Phuket on March 7, said Region 8 Police Commander Panya Mamen.
“Officers searched the bus identified by Mr Kee when it arrived at the Tah Chat Chai checkpoint and found Soonthorn Limsakul, 37, sitting in the back of the bus with a bag of ya ice on the floor next to him,” he said. Read more...
The group’s ire is focused mainly on Chinese and Russian companies that they claim are set up using a Thai nominee.
“In the past, Chinese and Russian tour operators contacted us for boat rentals, Thai tour guides, hotels and restaurants,” said Krissada Phichetponsanon, Managing Director of the Andavaree company. Read more...
Sor Por Por Lanna group held press conference in Chiangmai
It came as somewhat of a surprise that the service, launched with considerable fanfare in July last year, has not turned out to be as popular as expected, especially given the widespread dissatisfaction with the woeful public transport options on the island.
Unfortunately, and despite perhaps legitimate claims by the operator that Airports of Thailand (AoT) and other forces with vested interests at the airport are largely to blame, the sad fact remains that nine months after starting, the service still has no discernible English-language presence on the internet to inform would-be riders that it even exists. Read more...