After a months long cat-and-mouse chase, forest crime suppression officials from the Forest Protecting Operation Centre (FPOC) have nabbed what they believe to be the master-mind or a key coordinator of the Phayung logging gang.
Thawatchai Raksasil, 33, and his aide were arrested in Khon Kaen using arrest warrants and were brought to the Natural Resources and Environment Crime Suppression Division of the Royal Police for interrogation Friday evening.
They reportedly confessed to being the principle coordinators within the gang.
The arrest is part of ongoing suppression efforts against the gang, which is believed to be the largest Phayung (endangered Siamese rosewood) logging gang in the country and possibly transnational in scope.
The centre’s Phayak Prai taskforce, led by Cheewapap Cheewatham, last December teamed up with Thap Lan National Park rangers to track illegal-logging moves by the gang’s members within the Sakaerat Environmental Research Station in Nakhon Ratchasima province. Two ancient Phayung trees had been cut down and sawed into pieces and placed beside the roadside pending transportation.
The park’s Central Network Anti-Poaching System (NCAPS) cameras were later able to capture the gang returning to the site to transport the logs. When officials showed up to make arrests, they were fired upon by gang members and their vehicles damaged by bullets.
Three people were arrested at the scene, and at least two vehicles were seized as a result.
The centre then mobilised the forces to expand the investigation, which included the Phayak Prai task force, officers from the Royal Thai Police and their Natural Resources and Crime Suppression Division, along with the military from Internal Security Operations Command.
Discovering that one of the cars had a fake licence plate, officials went to check a car rental tent, from which one of the vehicles had reportedly been bought. The business owner claimed that four of his cars had been stolen. The matter is still under investigation.
Meanwhile, officials also expanded their investigation, and learned of the involvement of a resort in a popular tourist attraction in nearby Wang Nam Khiao.
One of three loggers previously arrested in the October operation reportedly confessed that the gang used the resort to plan its operations. The resort belongs to a so-far unnamed former senior police officer, with the rank of Police Lieutenant rank, who claimed that the 12-rai (1.9-hectare) plot was under an Agricultural Land Reform designation.
Typically, land under that designation is distributed by the Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO) to landless farmers. However, ALRO informed FPOC officials that the land’s status is still under review and it had not been allocated to anyone.
Athapol Charoenshunsa, FPOC director and deputy chief of the Royal Forestry Department, said that the centre’s initial investigation suggested the criminal ring was probably the largest illegal Phayung logging gang in the country. It is transnational, with several known criminals involved, he said.
“This criminal case is very critical as a number of criminals have records related to similar Phayung logging cases. Despite their criminal records, they did not show fear, but repeated their crimes. They even shot at officials,” Athapol said.
An additional 20 suspected gang members have arrest warrants issued against them, with Vietnamese individuals also identified, putting the total number of criminals known to be involved at 25.
Siamese rosewood has been extensively harvested from Thai forests in recent years, from the Northeast to the eastern forests of the World Heritage Site of Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex which includes Thap Lan National Park.
A surge in demand is partly driven by large-scale international consumption of the wood, including in China. The strikingly beautiful wood is used for household furniture and decoration. In China, many people believe the wood brings good luck and prosperity.
In recent years, foreign nationals have been found to be involved in illegal logging activities, prompting officials to step up their suppression efforts with the help of technology such as the NCAPS camera system.