Updated at 11:19 a.m. ET on 2017-02-14
The Bangkok arrest of an alleged Laotian kingpin of a major Southeast Asian drug trafficking ring helped expose links between narcotics smuggling operations on both sides of the Thailand-Malaysia border and an insurgency in the Thai Deep South, officials said.
Following the Jan. 19 arrest of Xaysana Keopimpha – a Lao dubbed as the “ASEAN drug lord” in news reports – and the subsequent arrests of about a dozen alleged drug traffickers with the aid of Malaysia, Thai officials said that some of the suspects were possibly helping finance southern insurgents directly or indirectly.
The deputy defense minister who is in charge of the Thai junta’s efforts to solve the decades-old separatist conflict in the Deep South said insurgents and drug traders may have converged.
“Officials involved see it is possible that the insurgents benefit from such illegal activities, therefore we need to focus on this issue as it is vital,” Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr told BenarNews on Friday at a military base in Pattani, one of the provinces in the troubled far southern region.
“It is possible for drugs cartels to make money and provide insurgents with funds and materials to conduct attacks.”
Drugs are an integral part of the troubles in the region, and local gang leaders and even some local politicians provide insurgents with funds and sanctuary, said Lt. Gen. Nanthadej Meksawat, a security expert and retired Thai army officer who spent several years in military intelligence in the Deep South.
Given its proximity to the Malaysian border, the restive region is awash in criminal activity and drug-smuggling, apart from the insurgency, local sources said.
According to a senior military official stationed in the region, around “one-fifth” of the nearly 7,000 people who have been killed in violence in the Deep South since 2004 were victims of drug-smuggling activity.
The situation in Deep South will ease when authorities cut the flow of money to insurgents, Nanthadej said.
“If the government can solve drugs problem, it half succeeds in solving Deep South troubles, simply because the insurgents would not be well-financed by drugs traders,” he told BenarNews in a phone interview.
Officers arrested Xaysana, a 41-year-old nicknamed “Mr. X” and described in reports as the head of a drug cartel trafficking “yaba,” caffeine-laced meth tablets produced in Myanmar, throughout the Mekong region, at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport.
“Xaysana was elusive. But thanks to Lao officials who gave us information about him, we could nab him ... we tried to follow him for five years,” Lt. Gen. Sommai Kongvisaisuk, who heads the Thai police’s Narcotics Suppression Bureau, told reporters the day after the Laotian was caught.
Meanwhile, separate raids in northeastern Thailand on Jan. 19 led to arrests of two Thai men and a Thai woman, resulting in the confiscation of more than 100 million baht (U.S. $2.86 million) in assets.
In Malaysia, the director of the Narcotics Criminal Investigation Department, Mohd Mokhtar Mohd Shariff, said anti-drug officers arrested five suspected drugs dealers last week in Kuala Lumpur and Kelantan – a state that lies across the border from the Deep South.
“[F]ive men – four locals and one Thai citizen involved in trafficking psychotropic pills – have been arrested. No drugs were confiscated,” Mohd Shariff said in a statement.
Sommai, the Thai counter-narcotics chief, said he learned from a Malaysian counterpart on Feb. 6 that one of the suspects was Kamarudin Bin Awang, whom he described as a “trade partner of Xaysana.”
Sommai said the suspect is also known as Sinudeng Ma and is a son-in-law of Maniring Jako. Maniring allegedly traffics drugs from northern and northeastern Thailand to Malaysia, according to the Thai criminal database.
Sirinya Sitthichai, secretary general of the Thai Office of Narcotics Control Board,said a drug dealer from the Deep South, Uzman Salamang, was among the syndicate’s leaders.
“This man [Uzman] was wanted so he became inactive and Xaysana took his role ... Kamarudin’s arrest is an extension of the operation,” Sirinya told reporters on Friday while pointing to an organizational chart of the transnational cartel.
Thai authorities placed a bounty of 2 million baht (U.S. $57,000) on Uzman’s head and he fled to Laos in 2012, Sirinya said. Convictions on charges of trafficking in drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine or crystal meth could lead to death sentences.
Sommai linked Uzman with Xaysana.
“Xaysana connects with Uzman, a key drugs dealer in the Deep South who escaped to Laos. Uzman uses Xaysana’s last name, having face job. Laos is trying to identify him,” Sommai told Thai Rath TV.
Anis Natasha in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.
An earlier version misquoted Sirinya Sitthichai as referring to Kamarudin Bin Awang as a wanted man who became inactive. Sirinya was referring to Uzman Salamang.