The days when foreign paedophiles and criminals could retire in peace in Pattaya – a Thai beach resort infamous for its prostitution and sleazy nightlife – are numbered, at least according to immigration police.
On Thursday, Pattaya’s Immigration Office will officially launch the country’s first Transnational Crime Data Centre, equipped with a staff of 12 and a 6-million-baht (184,615-dollar) computer system dedicated to tracking down nefarious expats.
“Pattaya may have been a heaven for foreign criminals in the past, but now we have the technology to spoil their paradise,” said Police Colonel Athiwit Kamolrat, Chonburi Immigration Police Superintendent.
The centre, plastered with photos of alleged criminals wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Interpol, Bangkok-based embassies and Thai authorities, sits above Pattaya’s Immigration Office, a busy place visited by hundreds of expatriates a day.
Pattaya, a beach resort in Chonburi province about 100 kilometres south-east of Bangkok, has one of the largest expat communities in Thailand, estimated at more than 70,000 more-or-less permanent residents.
“Every foreigner who lives in Pattaya for a long time needs to come here to renew their visas, and when they do we put their name and address in our computer base,” said Police Lieutenant Colonel Prapansak Prasansuk, deputy superintendent of Chonburi immigration.
The centre also receives calls and emails from more than 700 hotels, guest houses and service apartments in Pattaya whenever a foreigner checks in for more than 24 hours.
A law requiring that all foreigners who stay in a place for more than a day must be reported to immigration police has been on the books for years, but now it is being enforced.
“Some guest houses and serviced apartments didn’t want to report to us because they were avoiding taxes, but I told them we are not responsible for collecting taxes, just for collecting foreigners,” Athiwit said. “In recent months the call-ins have increased 130 per cent.”
Those who fail to report foreigners face fines.
With the improved surveillance of resident foreigners in Pattaya, immigration police are well positioned to make arrests of any foreigner facing a warrant abroad, as long as the warrants are on their database.
Since October 2009, Pattaya immigration police have assisted with the arrests of seven human traffickers, primarily dealing with child prostitution rings, and about a dozen foreign criminals facing arrest warrants either abroad or in Thailand.
Embassy police officers based in Bangkok attribute Pattaya’s improved performance primarily to Police Lieutenant General Wuthi Liptapallop, the new head of the Immigration Bureau, who after taking office earlier this year made it his mission to crack down on foreign criminals in the kingdom.
“It’s all linked to Wuthi,” said one European diplomat. “It used to be very difficult getting assistance from the Thai police, but now something definitely has happened.”
To what extent and for how long the Pattaya crack down persists remains to be seen. There is a good deal of scepticism, given the ingrained corruption in the city.
“There are a large number of foreign gangsters operating in Pattaya, and without exception they are all paying off the police,” said one British crime reporter who specializes in Pattaya.
Pattaya’s recent history includes a long list of illustrious criminals.
There was Wolfgang Uelrich, a German national who defrauded tens of thousands of dollars from his countrymen through a bogus animal- welfare charity. He used the charity to invest in bars, restaurants and various businesses in Pattaya, and was eventually extradited to Germany where he was found guilty of fraud.
Rene Larsen, a convicted Danish drug trafficker, was a resident of Pattaya and proud owner of a palatial residence in the 1990s before he was extradited to Copenhagen.
Both men were known to have close connections with the Pattaya police force.
“Corruption in these cases has decreased in Pattaya, because now we have concrete evidence to present against them,” Athiwit said.
“But for the crackdown to work we need to have similar centres in Phuket, Samui, Chiang Mai and other tourist destinations.”
The bigger question for observers is whether the crackdown will continue after Wuthi’s term expires.
“In Thailand, for the long term, one never knows,” said one Western diplomat.