Cambodia's Ministry of Defence has demanded an apology from Thai media outlets for reports linking Defence Minister Tea Banh to a recent case of alleged cross-border arms smuggling by a Thai air force officer, one which has also ensnared an official from Cambodia’s Interior Ministry who remains detained in Thailand.
In a letter sent to the Thai Embassy’s Defence Attaché Office on Tuesday, the Defence Ministry’s Department of International Relations requested “cooperation” in getting the outlets to retract and apologise for articles published in Thai-language media linking Banh to an ordnance-packed vehicle seized in a bust on Saturday in Thailand’s Trat province, near the border with Cambodia.
Reached yesterday afternoon, Banh scolded the outlets who ran the story as lacking “professionalism”, but said his ministry would investigate the source of the weapons, which Thai authorities earlier in the week said were smuggled from Cambodia and destined for Myanmar.
“[Thai authorities] are working on this, and what we are doing is waiting to get information about the case,” Banh said.
The seizure occurred after residents and Thai naval paramilitary rangers in the area went to the aid of a car crash victim, only to find his Thai military-plated pickup truck contained a cache of assault rifles, machine guns, grenades and ammunition.
The driver, identified as Flight Sergeant First Class Phakhin Detphong, an air force officer attached to the Internal Security Operations Command in Bangkok, later told authorities he was an arms dealer and had bought the haul from a Cambodian man to sell to ethnic Karen rebels from Myanmar.
Thai authorities also apprehended another Thai man, as well as Cambodian national and immigration official Leang Piseth, who approached the scene in a Cambodian-plated white Toyota Land Cruiser, on suspicion of involvement in the arms trade.
Tuesday’s letter from the Defence Ministry stated the “false” reports had said the truck carrying the weapons had belonged to or been associated with Banh, who is also a deputy prime minister.
At a press conference yesterday, deputy spokesman for the Thai National Police Krissana Pattanacharoen said some media had linked a “high-ranking officer” in Cambodia to the car driven by Piseth, but added the “rumours” had been debunked by investigators, according to the Nation newspaper.
Speaking by phone yesterday, Group Captain Thatchai Achariyakaroon, Thailand’s air attaché in Phnom Penh, said the country’s chief defence attaché, Senior Colonel Sarayut Boonjue, had met with Banh following the reports.
“We try to let our media in Thailand to clarify the evidence, and if the information is wrong, they need to apologise to General Tea Banh,” he said, adding the attaché office would not investigate the case because it was “very sensitive”.
Piseth, a police official, had recently been transferred from the Koh Kong Provincial Police to the General Department of Immigration at the Interior Ministry, according to department chief Sok Phal, who said he had no further information on the case. “He committed a mistake, he should take responsibility,” Phal said.
Thai authorities said Piseth had passed through two military checkpoints at the Thai border, suggesting that he was a “very important person”.
Speaking yesterday, the Thai Immigration Bureau chief, Police Lieutenant General Natthorn Prosunthorn, said Piseth, 29, was found to have visited Thailand 231 times, while one of the Thai nationals detained, Jakkapong Krairiang, 37, had visited Cambodia 11 times, according to the Nation.
Detphong, the Thai air force officer, meanwhile, had no record of leaving the country via the Trat checkpoint, which borders the Cham Yeam International Checkpoint in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province.
Speaking yesterday, the deputy chief of the Cham Yeam crossing, Kim Ratana, said Piseth remained in custody in Thailand.
According to sections of a press conference uploaded online, Pattanacharoen, the deputy Thai police spokesman, said the decision process was “ongoing” as to whether Piseth would be returned to Cambodia or kept in Thailand.
Coming on the heels of another weapons bust linked to the Thai military in Bangkok last week, the arrest on Saturday prompted top Thai officials to call for stricter measures to clamp down on weapons smuggling and demand thorough investigations of the recent cases, including naming the “mastermind” behind the racket smuggling arms to Myanmar.
At a press conference on Monday, Detphong insisted he acted alone. However the deputy national police commissioner, Police General Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, was unconvinced and vowed further investigations, according to the Nation.
Additional reporting by Kim Sarom and The Bangkok Post