A real jewel of a case

The Bangkok Post has a terrific banner headline piece this morning (archive here) on the re-opening of the long and sleazy story of Thai relations with Saudi Arabia. The only thing missing from the story is the fifth W. And I’m not sure anyone knows just “Why” this long and winding — and squalid — case has suddenly popped up again, and particularly in the way it has done so.

There are two separate threads to this story. The first is the killing of Saudi diplomats and businessmen in Thailand almost 20 years ago. At around the same time, a Thai servant at a Riyadh palace ripped off the jewellery of the Saudi prince he worked for, and high-tailed it to Thailand with the collection, including a fabulous Blue Diamond.

Since then, a lot has happened including these highlights:

  • Thai police never caught the murderers of the Saudis, who almost certainly were highly influential and rich people involved in recruiting Thais to work in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s filthiest businesses except for outright human trafficking — although some would say there is no difference.
  • Thai police caught the jewellery thief but during the investigation, the jewels disappeared. The Blue Diamond supposedly was seen at a party shortly thereafter, around the neck of a Thai lady. Police made tacky imitations of the jewels and shipped them back to the prince in a clumsy scam. The policeman in charge of the investigation is in jail for life but the jewellery is still, officially, missing.
  • Saudi Arabia severed almost all diplomatic ties with Thailand, stopped all its nationals from coming on vacation, fired all Thai workers, and refused to backtrack on any of those decisions.
  • The ripped-off prince has become the King of Saudi Arabia.

There is a lot more, but these are most of the high points that people should know today.

Now the government is re-opening the jewellery case (no pun intended), and the minister of justice, Sompong Amornwiwat, has been to the prison to see the ex-police chief, Chalor Kerdthes. Most people thought that if the case were re-opened at all it would be to come up with some murder suspects. I never bought this theory, simply because the robbery victim is now the King of Saudi Arabia, and he is the one who decides where Thai relations go. It seems for the moment I was right, and the jewellery case goes to the head of the queue and the murders take a back seat.

Just a guess, but here is my guess. I give this because everyone in Thailand knows that the murderers will never be arrested, so there must be some reason to think that Riyadh has softened its hardline anti-Thailand stance.

I think the Saudis are waking up to the huge diplomatic advances that Iran has made in Thailand (and Southeast Asia) in the past couple of years. They realise that their total hands-off with Thailand is only giving Teheran room to attract investment (recently by Siam Cement and PTT) and spread propaganda (there is a big Iran-run printing firm churning out books and magazines in Thai) and commerce (Iran-Thailand trade may seem to fixate anally on rice and oil, but there’s a lot more going on).

I wonder, with even less backing than the above, if the illicit owner of the Blue Diamond is perhaps willing to part with it and give it back to the Saudi King. In that case, the murders might be swept under the rug as Thailand and Saudi Arabia restore stiff, formal but real diplomatic relations, with a Saudi ambassador and all.

A Bangkok Post graphics info box has a helpful timeline on the some of the key events and developments in this sordid case. Because the newspaper takes its stories offline after a month, I have taken the liberty of copying the graphic. If you want to read the graphic, click on it and you will get a larger view. But I also have transcribed the timeline into text, and that will comprise the rest of the post.

These criminal incidents led to a downgrading of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Bangkok.

January 1989
Abdullah Al-Maliki, 35, third secretary to the Saudi embassy, was shot dead in front of his home in Soi Pipat 1 off Sathon road. A man was arrested and charged in connection with the murder, but acquitted by the Supreme Court for lack of evidence.

August 1989
Thai worker Kriangkrai Techamong who worked in the palace of Saudi king Faisal Ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud stole jewellery items, including the Blue Diamond, worth millions of baht, and flew back to his home in Lampang. He was later arrested, charged and convicted of theft.

January 1990
Three other Saudi diplomats — Abdullah A Al-Besri, Fahad A Z Albahli, and Ahmed A Alsaif — were shot, execution-style, about five minutes apart. No suspects were arrested.

February 1990
Saudi businessman Mohammed al-Ruwaili, a friend of the slain diplomats, went missing. Riyadh took Thai police to task for his disappearance, for failing to heed its warning about the security of people close to the slain Saudi diplomats.

January 2002
The Criminal Court sentenced Pol Lt Gen Chalor Kerdthes, who supervised the Saudi gems theft case, to life and eight other defendants — mostly police — to long jail terms. Chalor and the other defendants were charged with the abduction and premeditated murder of the wife of gem trader Santi Srithanakhan.

1989-2003
Investigating teams set up to solve the case but police tended to focus on the stolen jewellery and missing gems.

2004
The Thaksin Shinawatra government asked the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) to take over the role of investigating the murders from the police.

2008
Justice Minister Sompong Amornwiwat met Saudi chargé d’affaires Nabil Ashrim to show him the government was serious about resolving the cases. The DSI set up a panel to look into them.

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