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Carving a niche in the black market

Legacy Phuket Gazette

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Carving a niche in the black market | Thaiger

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Six men were arrested in November for illegal possession of more than 50 kilograms of eaglewood. One of the men was caught with an illegal .45 handgun under his pillow. Today, those six men roam free, all released on suspended sentences.

Here, the Phuket Gazette‘s Irfarn Jamdukor investigates the island’s illegal logging trade.

PHUKET: Six men were arrested during a morning raid of two neighboring houses near Kathu Municipality Kindergarten on November 18.

Five of them pleaded guilty to illegal possession of eaglewood, resulting in a speedy handing down of an initial sentence of three months in prison and a fine of 2,000 baht per person.

“All of them confessed, so the penalty was reduced to 45 days in prison and a fine of 1,500 baht each,” said an officer at Phuket Provincial Court.

“The judge then suspended the jail terms and ordered the men to one-year probation.”

The men spent the night at Thung Thong Police Station, but were free to go after their sentences were suspended the next day – despite being caught with contraband with a street value of more than 300,000 baht.

As the men were charged under Section 29 of the Forest Act BE 2484 (1941), the maximum penalty could have been up to one year in prison or a fine of up to 10,000 baht, or both, the court officer explained.

The current whereabouts of the men – Wiangchai Srichan, 34; Udon Srichan, 32; Thanad Petrit, 45; Sanan Kodking, 42; and Anucha Somsung, 38 – are unknown.

The sixth man, Wirat Sunsuwan, 38, stood trial on January 20.

Mr Wirat was charged with illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition after officers conducting the raid found an illegal .45 handgun, fully loaded, under his pillow.

“He was sentenced to two years in jail, but the sentence was halved, then commuted to two years’ probation,” said Maj Pramuan Jaikratok of the Thung Thong Police.

NIGHT PATROL

The rising incidence of illegal loggers plundering Phuket’s protected forests has prompted officers to boost patrols up to five times a week, including night patrols.

“Many protected forests in Phuket are logged by different gangs,” Maj Pramnuan explained.

Paisarn Noopichai, chief of the Royal Forest Department (RFD)’s Deforestation Prevention and Suppression office in Phuket noted that three areas were particularly prone to illegal logging: the
Nakkered Hills behind Karon, the hills in Thalang; and the area near the Bang Wad Reservoir in Kathu.

“These gangs stash their illegal wood in houses near the forests or hide it somewhere in the jungle, but it seems none of the gangs know where the other gangs keep their wood,” he said.

IN THE DARK

The November arrests have reinvigorated interest in combating illegal loggers.

“After arresting this gang, we contacted other officers to be on the lookout for illegal logging in protected forest areas,” Maj Pramuan said.

Chief Paisarn revealed that although his teams of officers had arrested five gangs during the past two years, the persistence of the nighttime cutting crews was gnawing at him.

“We are very concerned about this. I believe there are many gangs in Phuket, and in the past two years we have discovered more than 20 large eaglewood trees, as well as ironwood and takien sai trees, felled in protected Phuket forests,” he said.

“These logging gangs operate at night and they separate into teams to scour the forest for trees to fell, which makes it very difficult for us to find them.

“We recently increased the number of our patrols, but we don’t have enough officers to comprehensively protect the forests – which cover huge areas – and we’re trying to find the loggers in the dark, which is not easy.”

What officials did learn from the November raid is that felled wood stashed in the jungle is collected by transport crews who deliver it to customers waiting in Bangkok or other destinations elsewhere in Thailand, or even Malaysia.

“But we have learned nothing about the gangs and the networks of the operators who ply these routes,” Chief Paisarn said.

Col Natthapakin Kwanchaipruk, Superintendent of the Tah Chat Chai Police, confirmed that his officers had yet to make any arrests for lumber trafficking since he took charge of Phuket’s northernmost police station more than a year ago.

“Every truck carrying wood is stopped and checked at the Tah Chat Chai checkpoint,” Col Natthapakin said.

“However, it would be easy to conceal illegal wood in a shipment of regular timber on the back of a truck,” he noted.

LEGACY

Much of the current impetus to target illegal loggers in Phuket stems from the passion of former Kathu District Chief Veera Kerdsirimongkol for protecting the island’s forests.

Current Kathu Chief Sayan Chanachaiwong has vowed to maintain that pressure.

“This is an important issue. We do not want anyone destroying Phuket’s forests,” he said.

“Mr Veera did much good work and left behind many leads that we are still pursuing. Nearly everything I know about illegal logging in Phuket, I learned from him.”

Chief Sayan, however, declined to reveal exactly which investigations were underway.

“We meet with relevant departments each month to learn the latest about the state of illegal logging on the island and to develop strategies to prevent it,” he said.

“We also have volunteers to keep watch in certain areas and we have asked local villagers to inform us if they find any illegal logging in their areas.”

However, Chief Paisarn noted, “Some villagers call in with tip-offs, but many do their best not to anger illegal loggers. After all, these gangs carry guns and knives.”

BLACK MARKET

Chief Paisarn was at pains to point out that 250 species of trees are protected under Thai law, but that eaglewood was the most likely to be targeted by illegal loggers.

“Eaglewood is the main target because the tree can used to make fragrances,” he said.

“Top-quality eaglewood could fetch almost 100,000 baht per kilogram, while the parts of the wood not used to make fragrances can be used to make wooden products.”

Chief Paisarn estimates that the RFD, established specifically to protect natural forests throughout Thailand, knows of only 20 to 30 per cent of the total number of eaglewood trees on the island.

“These trees grow throughout Thailand and are more common in the South… but the number of them is diminishing. That’s why we have to protect them.”

— Irfarn Jamdukor

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Archiving articles from the Phuket Gazette circa 1998 - 2017. View the Phuket Gazette online archive and Digital Gazette PDF Prints.

Tourism

Phuket’s July Sandbox no-quarantine model “needs a major revamp”

Tim Newton

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Phuket’s July Sandbox no-quarantine model “needs a major revamp” | Thaiger
PHOTO: The monsoon waves are starting to hit Phuket's west coast

Thailand’s Sports and Tourism minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn is acknowledging that Phuket’s ‘Sandbox’ model for a no-quarantine re-opening in July will need “a major revamp”. As the Songkran travel bubble bursts and the monsoon season waves start to roll onto the island’s west coast beaches, Phuket’s scheduled July re-boot suddenly seems a long way off.

Minister Phiphat says he plans to meet with “all related agencies” this week. Apart from the latest national re-surge in new infections, Phuket has been unable to get its hands on sufficient vaccines to meed its deadline of 70% of the island vaccinated by July 1. Thailand’s limited supplies of the vaccine – including some 930,000 doses designated for Phuket – are being rerouted to other provinces as the government prioritises the limited supply.

“We are all concerned about the reopening timeline,” he was quoted in Bangkok Post.

But the Minister did acknowledge that, if the 70% vaccination level couldn’t be met, they may consider opening some areas of the island. Exactly how that would work hasn’t been revealed at this stage.

The minister also brought up the ongoing travel bubble negotiations and says he hadn’t heard back from some of the candidates with their reaction to the current outbreak.

Flights in and out of Phuket Airport’s international terminal have been extremely patchy and the flights from feeder tourist markets will need to co-operate with any re-opening plans.

Phuket, whilst suffering a rise in new infections, hasn’t been hit as hard as some of the other popular holiday provinces, like Chiang Mai, Chon Buri (Pattaya) and Prachuap Khiri Khan (Hua Hin).

This year’s Songkran was going to be a major stepping stone for the island’s recovery and many hotels, some who had opened especially to cater for Songkran holiday traffic, noted a lot of cancellations just prior to the break.

But some island hotels have still reported high occupancy rates over the past week. One Manager, who did not want his name published, said that their hotel was almost full with Thai patrons, most who had pre-paid for their flights and accommodation and decided to go ahead anyway.

Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, the president of the Phuket Tourist Association, says that they are opposed to any lockdown as it would cripple the island, with its tourist businesses already suffering greatly. He stated that 15% of people cancelled their Songkran bookings, while 30% had postponed their trips.

The Sports and Tourism Ministers is still in quarantine after having close contact with Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob, who was diagnosed with Covid-19 2 weeks ago.

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Phuket begs Kolour attendees to come for Covid-19 testing

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Phuket begs Kolour attendees to come for Covid-19 testing | Thaiger
FILE PHOTO: Kolour in the park was more pleasant in 2018 before Covid-19.

Health officials in Phuket put out a public statement this week compelling all foreigners who attended clubs and ‘Kolour’ events to report for Covid-19 testing. As many might expect, the response has been lacklustre at best. Spreading the message around the foreigner and expat community in Phuket, the message is aimed at the multitudes of people, mostly foreign who attended Kolour and related events that turned into a Covid-19 superspreader event. Many foreigners have not come forward, much to health officials chagrin.

Online and on social media, foreigners and Thais shed light on why this urgent public health request is going largely unheeded. Foreigners fear the repercussions of coming forward, especially since Thailand is not allowing staying home or elsewhere in isolation if someone tests positive for Covid-19. Quarantine is mandatory, and with infection numbers exploding across the country, many fear the less-than-posh comforts of being quarantined in an emergency field hospital.

Cost is the other factor that likely is preventing foreigners from turning themselves in to be tested for Covid-19. While Phuket health officials may test people for free, anyone found infected with Covid-19 will be financially responsible for all the costs of their treatment and quarantine. Foreigners with limited financial resources, especially after a year of holing up in Thailand to ride out the Coronavirus, may resist reporting to authorities when they cannot afford the mandatory quarantine and medical treatment.

Perhaps recognizing this hesitation, the message includes a plea for all attendees to self-quarantine and self-monitor for any symptoms over the next week, even if they fail to report or test negative. The note also reminds everyone to wear masks in public at all times. The statement to the public also instructed anyone who attended any of the Covid-19 spreading nightlife events to report to the Acute Respiratory Infection Clinic area of Vachira General Hospital to receive a Covid-19 swab test.

SOURCE: The Pattaya News

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Pattaya, Phuket and Hua Hin brace for increased restrictions

Tim Newton

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Pattaya, Phuket and Hua Hin brace for increased restrictions | Thaiger

Three of Thailand’s biggest expat areas are seeing sharp rises in new infections, partly from pre-Songkran traffic. The Songkran holidays, now officially over (but will see many people taking today off and making a weekend Songkran extension), and the government says they are expecting to see a rise in the cases numbers reported in the popular holiday locations.

Chon Buri Public Health office says they now have a total of 910 infections since April 1. They have 103 new cases in the past 24 hours. Most new cases are in Bang Lamung district which includes Pattaya City with 47, Siracha with 12) & Chon buri City with 8.

Pattaya, Phuket and Hua Hin brace for increased restrictions | News by Thaiger

Meanwhile Phuket has a total of 142 infections recorded on the island with the Governor still insisting there will be no need for a lockdown. Here’s a breakdown of the areas and the numbers of recorded infections so far (below).

Governor Narong announced that the Phuket Infectious Disease Control Committee won’t be implementing an official lockdown, but will “strictly raise the intensity of public health measures to counter the spread of Covid-19″.

“Everyone should wear a face mask, maintain social distancing, wash their hands frequently and install the Mor Chana app (available for free from App Store and Google Play Store).”

A meeting of the CCSA, chaired by PM Prayut Chan-o-cha is expected to upgrade restrictions in red zone areas around the country, which includes Phuket and Pattaya. Read more about the latest red and orange zones HERE.

Pattaya, Phuket and Hua Hin brace for increased restrictions | News by Thaiger

For Hua Hin expats, there’s been 100 new Covid-19 infections announced in Prachuap Khiri Khan in the past 24 hours, 75 cases from Hua Hin. This takes the total in the province since April 1 to 625. Hua Hin accounts for nearly 90% of the district’s total cases.

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