With the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 still up in the air, the impostors onboard with passports stolen in Thailand highlights an old dilemma
When I first began living in Bangkok in late 1992, Thailand had already acquired the dubious reputation of being the “false documents capital of the world,” as one newspaper put it.
The evidence was not difficult to find. On Khaosan Road, at least a dozen stalls sold fake press passes from Fleet Street, fake driver’s licenses with UN stamps on them, and fake university degrees. For a few hundred baht more you could even buy a fake transcript. Many English teachers used them to get their first jobs in Thailand. An often-repeated joke of the time was, “I just graduated from the Khaosan University.”
In the lane outside the guesthouse where I first stayed and later lived, there was a little stand and a hand-printed sign that read, “We buy anything dodgy or not.” That was not false advertising. They bought backpacks, Walkmans, clothes, sandals, and passports.
Broke backpackers would sell their passports for a few thousand baht, then report them lost. Sometimes the sellers were travelers who’d acquired a heroin habit up in the Golden Triangle and pawned them for a quick fix. They did not have to go far for another shot at playing Russian roulette with a loaded syringe, as the police sold grams of smack, packed in drinking straws, for 1,000 baht, from the old pool hall (long demolished) down the road.
THE FATE OF MALAYSIA AIRLINES FLIGHT 370 STILL UP IN THE AIR
The plot twist in the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 that two of the flyers were using passports stolen in Thailand surprised none of the old Khaosan roadies. Back in the early ‘90s stealing passports was a lucrative sideline in Thailand, practiced by both Thais and farangs, some of the latter bargirls, the former mostly petty criminals living around Khaosan or on the lam in different parts of the country.
The passports were much in demand from the human traffickers who lived in our guesthouse. Those documents looked a lot more authentic than some of the shoddy imitations that the gangs of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nigerian forgers faked.
One that I saw – and this was actually used by a people-smuggler from Britain operating out of the Ploy Guesthouse, which used to be above Gulliver’s Traveler’s Tavern – was for “Nancy Lars Gunnarhabh Cohen from Invercargill, New Zealand.” As the Brit said, “Brilliant. I’m a female Swedish fucking Kiwi Jew.”
I hijacked that last anecdote for a novella called “Obituary for the Khaosan Road Outlaws and Imposters” in my latest collection, The Phantom Lover and Other Thrilling Tales of Thailand. Originally, I was going to put the tale in the non-fiction collection Bizarre Thailand: Tales of Crime, Sex and Black Magic, but it was too long and I would not want to incriminate any of the violent and depraved characters we hung out with back then, even though many were murdered by rival gangs, died of overdoses, or are still in jail.
Far from its reputation now as a haven for gap-year kids, who make Khaosan and the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan look like suburbs of Fort Lauderdale, Florida during the Spring Break melee, back then the strip was much darker and far more dangerous.
This description of the different criminals operating in Khaosan Road from the aforementioned novella is basically journalism with the names changed. “Ploy Guesthouse where Mick and I stayed was at the top of Khaosan Road, across the street from a police station adjacent to a Buddhist temple named after a victorious war against the Burmese. Few of the expats, and even fewer of the travelers staying around Southeast Asia’s main drag for backpackers, realized that this was the biggest port of call and safe house for international criminals in the region from the late eighties to the mid-nineties. For anyone who needed to lay low it made a good hideout, because it was easy to blend in with all the travellers. None of the guesthouses required a passport to check in, so anyone could register with a fake name. Rooms went for around three bucks American per night. And the local cops, according to Mick and Mohammad, were so busy doing their own deals and scams that they didn’t have any time left to scoop up the smaller fish in a dragnet. Every few months they’d round up nine or ten Africans and Iranians who had overstayed their visas, hold a press conference to show them off and then deport them. But they rarely busted any Caucasians.
“After I’d done seven or eight boarding-pass runs and proven myself, Mick began telling me about some of his other cronies on the strip and in our guesthouse, peopled by a floating population of every criminal element. Nobody, except the small-time drug dealers, advertised their ‘wares’ and ‘business interests’, but secrecy was impossible in such a small and stifling world. At one time or another, Mick had worked every crime racket there was. “I’m a bit of an outlaw me. So are these other gits.” According to him, Joe, the Irish guy with the bad teeth, was stealing passports from backpackers and fencing them; Taro and a couple of his Japanese friends were buying arms from the Thai military and reselling them to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka; Beyruce, who was either Iraqi, Iranian or possibly Moroccan, though he told everybody, “I come from the moon,” was forging credit cards; Hans had set up a business to launder drug money from Cambodia; a huge Hawaiian man nicknamed “Tiny” was working an insurance scam; Nigel was running Thai prostitutes to Japan; and Omar, the friendly Sudanese guy staying next to me, who claimed to be in IT, was part of a heroin-trafficking network.”
SOUTHEAST ASIA’S MOST WANTED TERROR SUSPECT
It only came out several years after the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, that they were planned in Thailand. One of the alleged masterminds, Riduan Isomudin, better known as Humbali, was arrested in Ayuthaya in August 2003 while planning attacks on the APEC Summit in October and various Thai hotels. He had entered Thailand with a Spanish passport.
Shortly after being arrested in Thailand, the so-called “Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia” disappeared into a series of “CIA black sites” and Guantanamo Bay. He has not been heard from since. Nor has he ever been charged.
In late 2010, a Pakistani national named Muhammed Ather (aka Tony Butt; I wonder if he got his fake name from the man who named Nancy Lars Gunnarhabh Cohen) got nabbed by customs officials while attempting to cross into Thailand from Laos at the Nong Khai checkpoint.
From his base in Bangkok, The Guardian reported that Ather allegedly supplied false passports to all sorts of crime syndicates and human traffickers, such as the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba group, accused of plotting the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 164 people dead and more than 300 injured including members of the terror cell, based on al-Qaida and blamed for the train bombings in Madrid in 2004 that left 191 people dead and injured more than 1,800.
A member of the gang was also found to be traveling on a false passport. That man, Ahboor Rambarak Fath, was arrested at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport in 2009.
MALAYSIA AIRLINES FLIGHT 370 STILL MISSING
While the world waits with rapt and dread anticipation to find out what has happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing on Friday, March 7, it has already been revealed that two of the passengers were using passports stolen in Thailand from the Italian national Luigi Maraldi and the Austrian Christian Kozel.
The flight’s disappearance may not have anything to do with the two impostors nor any acts of terrorism. Nonetheless, the incident has focused media attention on Thailand once again. All those qualities that make the country such a pleasant place to live, the easygoing people and lax laws, also make it, conversely enough, a great place for criminals to lay low (just like in the bad old days of Khaosan Road) and for terrorists to plan operations.
The reaction from Thai authorities has, predictably, been nil. As usual, they will probably round up a few passport forgers to save face and then the problem will continue as ever. Remember back in October 2013 when Rihanna tweeted about seeing a live sex show and put up a photo of herself hugging a slow loris? After the onslaught of bad publicity the Phuket authorities busted a few slow loris vendors, and closed down a sex show for a week or two. Then it was back to bedlam as usual.
And if you asked the average local about the passports stolen or forged in Thailand, and their role in criminal endeavors, they would probably give that classic “mai pen rai“(never mind) response, followed by a smile: an expression of apathy which sanctions every sort of atrocity and ensures that the country never extricates itself from the quagmire of partisan politics and anything-goes-as-long-as-it-pays corruption.