Sun, Feb 19, 2012 - Page 4 News List

Thailand questions ‘open door’ policies

BAR GIRLS CAME FIRST:A recent alleged plot to bomb Israeli targets has left Thai officials mulling issuing visas to prevent the country from attracting potential criminals

AP, BANGKOK

Unwinding at a beach town with bar girls came first. Building bombs was allegedly for later.

The three Iranians detained in Bangkok and accused of plotting to attack Israeli diplomats set priorities during their trip to Thailand. They spent time in the company of prostitutes at a famous beach resort that has attracted many of the world’s unsavory characters.

Thailand’s tourism industry, which accounts for 6 percent of the economy and employs more than 2 million people, brings in more than US$25 billion in revenues every year. It is inevitable then that among the roughly 12 million visitors every year, there will be many people with nefarious backgrounds.

The “Land of Smiles” has long been a favorite haven for criminals — from Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to gangsters, drug smugglers and pedophiles — drawn by its open-door visa policy, lax law enforcement and huge variety of white sand beaches.

Officials are now questioning if they should roll back the welcome mat a little.

“We have to admit that there are threats all over the world and our country is a weak link,” Thai Deputy Prime Minister for Security Affairs Wichean Potephosree said after an apparently foiled bomb plot was uncovered when an explosion in the Iranians’ rented house on Tuesday forced authorities to acknowledge that Thailand was a target of international terrorists.

Within days of the terror scare, the Thai Tourism Ministry put on hold a plan to allow visas on arrival to citizens of Middle Eastern countries, including Iran.

Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung said he would order immigration authorities to “closely check people who enter the country, especially from countries that might have problems.”

On Friday, police said that the three Iranians had flown into the resort island of Phuket on Feb. 8, then moved to Pattaya, a seedy beach town on the Gulf of Thailand known for its abundance of go-go bars and brothels.

They stayed in Pattaya at least two nights and cavorted with several female sex workers, one of whom was brought to Bangkok to identify the suspects on Thursday, said Lieutenant Colonel Noppon Kuldiloke, a senior immigration police investigator in southern Thailand.

They drank and played snooker together, according to one of the women quoted in Friday’s Bangkok Post, which published a cellphone photo she took of the group. The image purportedly shows the three Iranians sitting around hookah water pipes and a drink-filled table at a Middle Eastern-themed bar. Two of the men cradled women in their arms.

The men left Pattaya on Monday and the details get murky until the following day at about 2pm, when explosives in their rented Bangkok house blew up accidentally, forcing them to flee. Two suspects, Mohammad Kharzei and Saeid Moradi, were detained in Bangkok. A third suspect, Masoud Sedaghatzadeh, was captured on Wednesday in neighboring Malaysia as he reportedly tried to return to Iran.

Part of Thailand’s problem in tracking criminals is also a regional one. Borders in Southeast Asia are notoriously porous, making it easy to slip out of Thailand and disappear into Malaysia, Laos or Cambodia.

Malaysia has relaxed visa rules in recent years to boost tourism, allowing travelers from Iran and most Gulf countries visa-free entry for up to three months.

Sedaghatzadeh had traveled to Malaysia several times last year, according to a Malaysian security official who said authorities were investigating if the trips had any connection to the Bangkok plot. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

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