Two WSJ stories: New ASEAN hoops league, and NK weapons crew

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Two Thailand-related stories that I was too busy to post on Fri., but which I wanted to point out:

WSJ: “Long Shot: The New Asean Basketball League Tries to Win Over the Thais.”

Sports has always had its share of lovable long shots, plucky underdogs that fans pull for despite the odds, or even because of them. Now there’s the Thailand Tigers — one of six franchises of the Asean Basketball League, currently in the final weeks of its inaugural season. (The other five teams are the Philippine Patriots, the Singapore Slingers, the Satria Muda BritAma — from North Jakarta — the Kuala Lumpur Dragons and the opponent on this Sunday afternoon last month, the Brunei Barracudas.)

The league is backed by the big money and marketing savvy of founder Tony Fernandes, chief executive of budget carrier Air Asia, but it’s clear that the Tigers’ attempt to create a mass fan base is going to be no slam dunk.

“After all, this is the first entirely professional sports franchise in the history of Thailand,” proudly declares the Tigers’ 47-year-old owner, Wim Reijnen, adding that even the Thai soccer league has been semipro — that is, with rosters that mix pros and amateurs. He doesn’t care to divulge, though, just how much his players are paid.

A basketball aficionado since fellow Dutchman Rik Smits made it to the National Basketball Association in the U.S. in 1988, Mr. Reijnen says he’s long wanted to turn his performer-management experience to the realm of sports. In addition to picking the team name and colors and hiring and firing his first coach, he’s learned to cheer from the team bench “just like Mark Cuban” — the owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, who is known for his outrageous behavior and emotional outbursts.

(I love a good Rik Smits reference.)

I also enjoyed this:

It’s hard to find any basketball courts in the Thai countryside,” says American Ben Tamte, a hoops aficionado who teaches in Thailand.

And this:

“Still, Tigers’ owner Mr. Reijnen remains optimistic about the league and his underdog effort. “With more youth-development projects, basketball can only grow,” he says. “I think the nonstop action of an indoor sport where you sit in air-conditioning appeals to the people here. And now every young player in the country has a goal to shoot for” — in becoming a professional basketball player.

(Related satirical Onion story about Thai sports: “Just give me the damn sepak takraw ball.” Insert joke about Mae Hong Son Water Lillies here.)

In other news, the WSJ this story: “Thailand drops charges in weapons case“:

Thai officials dropped charges against the crew of a plane filled with illegal North Korean weapons detained in December at Bangkok’s international airport.

Prosecutors said they were responding to requests by the five crew members’ home countries, Belarus and Kazakhstan, to hand the cases over to potentially be tried in their own courts. Thai authorities said the men should be released soon, pending completion of procedural requirements, then deported.

Although rumored for days, the announcement surprised some weapons experts, who are puzzling over unanswered questions from the case and were hoping Thai authorities would hold the men longer, or at least until more details about the investigation were revealed. Thai officials have indicated the flight was headed for Iran, but it remains unclear who masterminded the arms purchase or where the arms were ultimately going to be used.

(My previous posts on the issue are here.)

(All emphasis mine.)

(Image source: WSJ.)

Two quick links: Thailand political risks and arms from North Korea

Just quickly, I wanted to point out this Reuters item from yesterday: “FACTBOX-Five political risks to watch for Thailand.” Give it a read.

Also, to follow on the issue of the plane carrying arms from North Korea, Bloomberg had this story Jan. 29 that’s worth a look: “Iran Was Destination of North Korean Arms, Thailand Reports.”

Update: Crew of N. Korean arms plane to be held until Feb. 11, Bangkok Post says

An update to my previous post: The Bangkok Post is now saying this:

The prosecution on Friday deferred until Feb 11 a decision on whether to indict the five crew members of a plane which landed at Don Mueang airport with an undeclared cargo of weapons from North Korea.

It was earlier reported that the prosecutors might drop charges against pilot Mikhail Petukhou, 54, from Belarus, and Alexandr Zrybnev, 53, Ciktor Abdullayev, 58, Vitaliy Shumkov, 54, and Ilyas Issakov, 53, from Kazakhstan for illegal arms possession, carrying weapons without permission, illegally bringing them into Thailand and failing to inform authorities of the items.

Kayasit Pissawanprakan, chief of the Criminal Litigation Office, said the prosecution could not yet decide whether they should be arraigned. There were still a large number of documents to be examined.

The prosecution, therefore, deferred the decision until Feb 11 and sought court permission to detain the five suspects for another 12 days at the Bangkok Remand Prison, he said.

(Emphasis mine.)

Bangkok Post: Crew of North Korean arms plane to be released today?

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Today’s Bangkok Post, citing an anonymous source, has this story: “Korea arms plane crew ‘to go free.’

The first two graphs:

Prosecutors have decided to drop charges against five suspects found last month with 35 tonnes of weapons on a plane from North Korea, a source close to the case has revealed.

The source did not elaborate yesterday on the reasons leading to the prosecutors’ decision, which will be announced today.

Previous posts on this topic are here.

(Photo at right: four of the rive crew. Image source: Bangkok Post)

Cargo plane seizure: N. Korean arms heading to Iran?

An update on the ongoing story about the cargo plane full of North Korean weapons that was recently seized here in Bangkok.

Here are two WSJ stories that highlight a couple of developments.

  • First, from Dec. 21, a piece about signs pointing to Iran as a possible destination for the arms.
  • And second, a Dec. 22 story with info on links between the plane and a company in Hong Kong.
  • N. Korea weapons bust: Thailand confirms assistance from U.S.

    The latest from AP: Thailand confirms US helped in weapons seizure

    BANGKOK — Thailand’s seizure of tons of illicit weapons from a plane from North Korea was the result of cooperation with the United States, a senior official said Thursday.

    The Ilyushin Il-76 transport plane was impounded Saturday in Bangkok during what officials said was a scheduled refueling stop. Thai authorities found a reported 35 tons of weaponry aboard it, all exported from North Korea in defiance of U.N. sanctions.

    Speaking at a news conference, National Security Council chief Thawil Pliensri confirmed media reports that there had been U.S. assistance in the seizure, but gave no details.

    He that Thailand was waiting for advice from the United Nations on whether the weapons should be destroyed.
    The U.N. sanctions — which ban North Korea from exporting any arms — were imposed in June after the reclusive communist regime conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. They are aimed at derailing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but also ban it from selling any conventional arms.

    Thawil revealed little else new at his news conference, which seemed aimed at quashing some rumors. He denied that Thailand would receive a reward or bounty for the seizure, or that it was pressured to act, saying it took action “as a member of the world community.”

    He added, however, that Thailand would like to be compensated if possible by the U.N. for the cost of transporting the weapons, which were taken to an Air Force base in the nearby province of Nakhon Sawan.

    (Emphasis mine.)

    What a story.

    Quick administrative note: Given the likelihood of future posts on this subject, I’ve created a label for reference: north_korea_weapons. I’ve added this label to past posts on the topic, as well.

    New Zealand connection to North Korean weapons bust?

    From today’s WSJ:

    Officials Probe Auckland Firm’s Role in Seized Arms Cache

    New Zealand officials are investigating whether an Auckland-based company has links to a weapons-filled plane from North Korea that was detained in Bangkok last week.

    Investigators are still unsure where the plane — carrying 35 tons of missiles, explosives and other armaments — was heading or who coordinated the flight plan. Its five-member crew, from Kazakhstan and Belarus, remains in detention in Bangkok and all five have denied knowledge that there were weapons onboard.

    Officials in Kazakhstan and the Republic of Georgia have said the aircraft, which is managed by Georgia-registered carrier Air West Ltd., was leased to carry the cargo by SP Trading Ltd., a New Zealand-registered company with offices in Auckland.

    Air West director Nodar Kakabadze said he had no information about SP Trading. “We signed a contract with SP Trading Nov. 4 this year to carry out some flights. That’s it,” Mr. Kakabadze said by phone from the freight company’s base in the Black Sea port city of Batumi, Georgia. “I know nothing more about the company, and we’d never worked with them before.”

    A copy of the lease agreement between Air West and SP Trading, obtained by Georgian aviation officials and viewed by The Wall Street Journal, lists a person named Lu Zhang as SP Trading’s director. New Zealand government records indicate SP Trading was incorporated there in July of this year and also list Lu Zhang as its director.

    “We are indeed aware of this issue and the alleged link to New Zealand,” said a spokesman for New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry. “We are urgently seeking more information,” the spokesman said.

    (Emphasis mine.)

    There’s also a short follow-up item on the New Zealand angle from Bloomberg today: New Zealand Probes Links to North Korea Arms Plane in Thailand. And there’s a story from the Times Online: North Korean arms plane ‘has links to New Zealand.’

    Fascinating stuff.

    (Previous posts on this topic are here, here, and here.)

    Why did the cargo plane stop in Thailand? And where was it going?

    More details on the recent seizure here in Bangkok of a cargo plane carrying arms from N. Korea (previous posts are here and here.):

    A snippet from a Dec. 14 CSM story:

    The cargo plane stopped to refuel Dec. 9 in Bangkok on its outward journey, Mr. Panitan says. It was empty and wasn’t searched at the time.

    Observers say it’s unclear why the crew would make multiple refueling stops if they were carrying illicit cargo. Moreover, Thailand has a history of cooperating with the US on high-profile interdictions, making it a risky stopover for a plane carrying 35 tons of North Korean weapons.

    These interdictions include the arrest and rendition in 2003 of Hambali, a senior al-Qaeda operative in Southeast Asia. Last year, the US Drug Enforcement Agency lured Viktor Bout, a Russian businessman and alleged arms dealer, to Bangkok in an elaborate sting operation. In August, a Thai court rejected a US extradition request against Mr. Bout. An appeal is pending.

    “I think the whole thing was stage-managed from start to finish,” says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok and a retired CIA official. He said the crew may have been part of the set-up and was likely to be quietly deported once the fuss dies down.

    The fact that the flight refueled at a military-run airport in Bangkok, a hub for US intelligence gathering, suggests a degree of complicity in a seizure that will humiliate North Korea’s leadership, claims Mr. Quaglia. “It’s a little bit hard to swallow that they just stopped for gas,” he says.

    And there’s this snippet from a Dec. 14 WSJ story:

    Intelligence experts said the use of a transport plane rather than a ship, and the decision to land in Thailand — a country known to cooperate heavily with U.S. intelligence services — indicates this may have been an unusual or hastily planned delivery.

    Flying into Bangkok “was certainly a high-risk mission,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a security expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. That could signify “there was an urgent need to move” to get the weapons to an active conflict zone, he said.

    And finally, some graphs from a Dec. 15 AP piece:

    Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said the flight plan indicated the aircraft was headed for the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.

    However, investigations into weapons trafficking shows that documentation such as a flight plan “doesn’t mean anything,” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior fellow for the Arms Transfers Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

    The types of arms reported to be on the aircraft — intended to add firepower to defend against planes and tanks, which are usually in the arsenal of government forces — were typical of those used by insurgent movements, and raised suspicion that they could be headed for an African rebel group, Wezeman said.

    Christian LeMiere, editor of the London-based Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, said the range of the Il-76 and its apparent flight path suggested it may have been headed to Africa, where there are groups ready to buy North Korean weapons.

    They included Sudan, which might pass the weapons to rebel groups in Chad, and Eritrea, which might keep them for its own arsenal or pass them on to warring factions in Somalia.

    (All emphasis mine.)

    More on the N. Korean Weapons Bust

    A bit more on the cargo plane full of arms from North Korea that Thai authorities seized here in Bangkok on Friday. (Note: I incorrectly said, earlier, that the bust took place on Sat. In fact, it happened Fri. night. I have corrected my original post.)

    I think one of the most interesting angles to the story is what it tells us about how the U.S. government and its allies are using a new U.N. law to disrupt North Korean arms smuggling. The practice is one of several illicit activities that the isolated regime uses to generate much-needed cash. The WSJ has a story today that tells us more about the U.N. law and its enforcement. Worth a read.

    Thailand nabs plane carrying weapons from North Korea

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    Image: Reuters

    Interesting story here in Thailand that involves North Korea, weapons trafficking, and American cooperation with Thai authorities.

    Thailand on Sat. late Fri. ((Corrected Dec. 14)) seized a cargo plane loaded with 35 tons of weapons that was on its way from North Korea to Sri Lanka.

    The plane’s final destination is unclear, but the Bangkok Post quotes a Thai air force source official as saying the plane was ultimately bound for Pakistan.

    The Post says the weapons included rocket propelled grenades, missiles, explosives, another other arms.

    cargo_plane_crew.jpg
    Image: Bangkok Post.

    The plane landed at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport for refuleing. US authorities tipped off Thailand regarding the illegal payload, and the plane was seized.

    Five crew members (pictured here), which Thai media reported are from Kazakhstan and Belarus, have been arrested.

    Here are some stories from the NYT, Reuters, BBC, and AFP.