After investing 30 years of his life in the suppression of illicit drugs, resulting in several hundred major cases and over 1,000 arrests, Police Major General Amaresrit Wattanavibool is clearly one of the world’s most experienced policemen in the field.
In Thailand, penalties for drug trafficking are severe. Those who slip up face the loss not only of high profits, but possibly even their lives. Therefore, bribe offers are not uncommon. By all accounts, Amaresrit has survived all the challenges to his honour, and is widely respected for his honesty and dedication.
Ever since he first became an anti-narcotics cop back in 1976, the word on the streets has been: “Once Amaresrit gets you, there's no negotiation, no mercy and no deal. It is all over and you go to jail!”
Proof of his excellence is in the numerous commendations presented to him by various foreign law enforcement agencies like the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), many of which are displayed in his office at the Narcotic Suppression Bureau (NSB) headquarters in Bangkok.
His comprehensive insider’s view of the drug trade in Thailand and abroad, if published, would make fascinating reading, a likely bestseller ahead of some famous authors of fiction. In fact, Amaresrit indicated during a three-hour interview that he is considering writing a book after his retirement in four years’ time. From what he said, he shouldn’t write a book but an encyclopedia.
His reputation as a serious and rarely smiling police officer is due in large part to the harsh realities of his chosen profession. He has seen it all - from policemen killed or injured while on duty to addicts on the verge of death. But according to long-time friends and family members, Amaresrit is actually a very caring, sensitive and gentle person.
He described how his career began: “After the Vietnam War many former American GIs came to Thailand to live. Some of them began to build heroin distribution networks from the Golden Triangle to the US. They were in contact with members of Khun Sa’s syndicate in the North, and were sending large heroin shipments to the US. At that time we were handling many cases with a direct American connection.
“Back then, there was no police unit in Thailand directly responsible for handling international drug trafficking investigations. We sat down and discussed the problem with US embassy officials. They offered to sponsor a special police unit that would deal with the problem. That’s when the Metropolitan Narcotic Unit (MNU) was created. I transferred there from the Bang Sue police station in 1976.”
The MNU operated out of a rented house located on Sukhumvit Road, Soi 15. The unit was swamped with cases from the beginning, but proved its effectiveness. This was partly due to support from the DEA, which was the first foreign agency to work with the Thai police in narcotic investigations, followed by the Australians.
“Now there are about 20 countries that assign law enforcement people to work with us. We are working very closely with everyone. The foreign law enforcement agencies are usually attached to their embassies and have no authority to work as investigators (this must be approved by Thai officials). We exchange information, and if they have a case they want to investigate or want to conduct surveillance, we will do it and allow them to join us. We work as partners,” Amaresrit explained.
He couldn’t name a single “biggest case”, saying rather that there have been many that might qualify, “especially international ones.”
He elaborated on a recent operation codenamed Short Time: “With cooperation from the Australian Federal Police, DEA and law enforcement officials from New Zealand and other countries, we arrested two Hong Kong citizens, a New Zealander and his Thai wife in Phuket, and seized 40 kg of heroin. They smuggled the drug from the North and planned to send it on a yacht to Australia.”
He has also been periodically assigned to tasks other than narcotics suppression. For example, he has been involved in a collaborative effort with the US Secret Service to track down counterfeit US currency, and a large investigation involving the violation of intellectual property rights, such as pirated CDs.
Amaresrit talked about the evolution of the drug trade and its suppression since he first came to the MNU. After the Americans, the drug syndicates from Europe began to arrive here and build connections, he said.
“For a long time we had trafficking mainly to the US and Europe. Not much was going to the rest of Asia. But now the trend is changing, as many counties are involved in trafficking drugs from and through Thailand.”
In the past the syndicates usually hired people from Asian countries to be heroin couriers. “After we intercepted and arrested a number of these with a lot of heroin, more and more often the runners came from Eastern Europe. After we got wise to this, they started to hire people from West African countries,” said Amaresrit.
He noted that Afghanistan is the biggest opium grower and heroin manufacturing country in the world, producing 80-90% of the world’s output, a lot of which enters Pakistan.
“This may come as a shock to many people, but Pakistan has no connection with smuggling to Thailand. Now a West African syndicate imports Afghan heroin here,” Amaresrit claimed.
He went on: “Myanmar and Laos account for about 10% of the opium grown worldwide, and heroin production in these countries has decreased dramatically in past years. This is extremely good news.”
The NSB has a staff of about 1,200 men and women in Thailand, around 400 of them who are under his command.
“I am in charge of Division 1, which covers Bangkok and provincial police regions one, two and three bordering Laos and Cambodia. We have also 20 policemen stationed at Suvarnabhumi International Airport,” said Amaresrit, adding that help from informers is vital.
“The project was launched on December 1, 2006 and we have already had a very good response. Over 500 people have already applied,” Amaresrit said.
He also said that they are looking for serious applicants, not people who “want to be James Bond,” adding that if someone knows a person selling small quantities of drugs, for example 10 methamphetamine (ya ba) tablets, they can contact the NSB’s special unit.
He explained that informants can get rewards for their information according to government guidelines.
“For example, if we seize one kg of ‘ice’ the reward is 100,000 baht. As for ya ba, the reward is three baht per tablet, with a maximum of one million baht; for heroin the reward is 20,000 baht per kg. We will also pay some expenses for the time the informant works for us,” he said.
Behind the story:
Despite making hundreds of arrests, often involving some extremely dangerous cases, Pol Maj Gen Amaresrit rarely talked to the press about his life. Thus, to be granted an interview even after knowing each other 30 years was a milestone.
He knew many secrets like who control drug trade in Thailand and outside, and who are the informers without whose help it would be more difficult to make seizures and arrests. Pol Maj Gen Amaresrit’s office was full of plagues and commendations as you can observe on the photos.
Amaresrit’s colleagues, both Thais and foreigners, speak highly of him. Frank Davies, a career diplomat from Australia who lives in Bangkok, was the first Australian official with whom Amaresrit worked. Davies recently recalled travelling to Bangkok to enlist the assistance of the MNU in a “matter of a mutual interest” when he was first secretary of the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the1970s.
“That’s when I met Amaresrit, then a young police lieutenant. Over a number of years, including my time as First Secretary of the Australian Embassy in Bangkok, I had the pleasure of working with him and his team on many, many occasions. They were all professional, dedicated and keen people.
Amaresrit noted that many people in Thailand complain about police corruption, but he said his department is not like that.
“We are different. We have our own headquarters and work every day with the international law enforcement agencies. We have learned many things from them,” he said.
“I don’t make arrests now, but sometimes when we have a big operation I control it from the operation room, and I’m involved in interrogation, especially of foreigners because I know how to deal with them,” he added.
Amaresrit admitted that his devotion to duty has affected his private life and taken time away from his family.
“I try to do my best and this requires a lot of time. I always think about my job when I’m at home. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable about my work because of the pressure. When I look back, I realise that I have missed out on a lot with my family and relatives,” he said.
Aside from travel, for enjoyment Amaresrit likes to read and play sports - soccer, tennis and, more recently, golf, which has become his favourite.
“I started to play golf only two years ago. I should have started much earlier because I would be a better golfer today,” said Amaresrit with a rare smile.