Source: The Nation
The arrest of drug lord Xaysana Keopimpha on January 20 as he disembarked from a flight from Phuket at Suvarnabhumi International Airport has exposed an underground world of crime in Laos that the authorities must find swift and effective ways to dismantle.
Thai police investigators determined that Xaysana, 42, heads a large syndicate smuggling narcotics from Laos via the Thai Northeast and South to other countries in the region. Thailand, it appears, is not merely a transit route but also a major regional market for the drugs.
Thai police spent at least five years investigating this trans-border syndicate and believes it might have as many as 100 members in Laos and Thailand. Real estate and luxury cars confiscated in Thailand since Xaysana’s arrest are collectively worth more than Bt100 million and police say he owns much more, including a string of houses in Isaan. Yet they never found it easy to get close to him on this side of the border. In Laos, Xaysana is a high-profile celebrity who’s long led an extravagant lifestyle. He has often posted photos online of his car collection, including a Lamborghini.
Police found that Xaysana also owns several legitimate businesses, such as hotels and sawmills, but his arrest nevertheless raises questions as to how he could accumulate such vast wealth illegally and remain in operation for years without harassment from the authorities. From Vientiane comes word, shared by residents, that he has close connections with senior officials in government. Media reports speak of his public appearances with the children of ruling party figures, although these officials and other people in Lao high society deny there’s ever been any such fraternisation.
Thai police have said Xaysana’s arrest involved the collaboration of Lao authorities. However that hasn’t stopped Lao users of the social networks from asking why their own police failed to nab him on one of his routine visits to Vientiane. It is surely unlikely that his illegal activities took place solely in Thailand.
Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith recently launched a campaign against corruption, to considerable fanfare. The arrest of Xaysana ought to give that campaign substantial impetus, opening the door for authorities there earnestly dig into the crime syndicates, particularly any suspected to having ties to government figures. The campaign should not overlook officials in the ruling party and government, no matter how high their rank. We have seen media reports over the past year about officials being dismissed and disciplined for abuses of power, including the acceptance of bribes, but not a single senior official has met this fate so far.
Vientiane’s investigation should be deep and determined enough to ascertain whether senior officials in the party or government protected Xaysana in any way. The likelihood is high that someone in power was shielding him from justice while he amassed his fortune. How was he able to import a super-car like a Lamborghini? Did he pay the required tax for bringing in such a luxury item? The Lao Ministry of Finance Customs Department claims to have impounded more than 5,000 illegally imported vehicles in fiscal 2015-2016. Are the would-be owners facing charges, and was Xaysana among them?
Crime syndicates cannot be allowed to flourish unchecked, in Laos or anywhere else. As well as hurting the local economy, victimising innocent people and undermining the credibility and effectiveness of government and security forces, they can destabilise relations with neighbouring countries. These gangs have to be challenged, fought and if possible uprooted.
Prime Minister Thongloun has displayed the political will and intent to rid his country of this menace. We hope he moves swiftly and is not diverted from his mission.