The Phoenix sank about 1.5 nautical miles off Koh Hei (Coral Island), south of Phuket, and the Serenata sank off Koh Mai Thon, some eight kilometres southeast of Cape Panwa.
All 41 people on board the Serenata were safely rescued, but at last report the Phoenix disaster had killed at least 41 people. Although officials are still dodging the label, so far all the dead identified were Chinese.
In Phuket overseeing the operation, Tourist Police deputy chief Pol Maj Gen Surachate “Big Joke” Hakparn said that officials will investigate 11 areas to prosecute “people in the private sector and also government officials” after he received a direct order from Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha.
The two companies targeted are TC Blue Dream Co Ltd, which operated tours on the Phoenix, and Lazy Cat Travel Co Ltd, which operated tours on the Serenata.
In carrying out the campaign, officers from the Phuket Provincial Police, and other law-enforcement agencies inspected and/ or raided the following locales:
1. The assembly point at Nam Chai Pier at Cape Panwa for tourists boarding boats operated by Lazy Cat Co Ltd;
2. A storage unit for Lazy Cat Co Ltd located at 104/2 Moo7 in Wichit;
3. A booking and accounts centre at a building in Panason Village, in Baan Borrae Muangthong;
4. A house and place of work called “Water Beach Club” at Nui Beach, Karon Subdistrict, operated by Itrot Chawanpipatpong;
5. A vacant office at 43/84 Moo5 in Rawai that is still listed on the company registration of TC Blue Dream;
6. The office of TC Blue Dream Co Ltd located at 41/2 Moo 5 in Rawai;
7. The house of Worarak Rerkchai, located on Wichit Songkram Rd in Phuket Town;
8. Aqua Dive Center Phuket Co Ltd located at 46/22 Moo 9 in Chalong;
9. JNK Electric Co Ltd located at 80/12 Moo7 in Chalong;
10. Seven Plus Travel Co Ltd located at 71/46 Moo 2 in Koh Kaew;
11. The house of Itrot Chawanpipatpong located in Moo 2 in Wichit.
Speaking at Phuket Provincial Police headquarters in Phuket Town yesterday, Gen Surachate said that Prime Minister Prayut had ordered Tourist Police co-operate with Amlo and other relevant agencies to “reveal the truth of the boat incident”.
“PM Prayut ordered us to prosecute all people involved in the incident – including people in the private sector that own the Phoenix and the Serenata, as well as any government officials involved,” Gen Surachate said.
Gen Surachet was not alone in revealing the strong mandate. Joining him at Phuket Provincial Police headquarters were Anti-Money Laundering Office (Amlo) Secretary Gen Chaiya Siriampankul; Police Region 8 Deputy Commanders Maj Gen Damrat Wiriyakul and Maj Gen Chalit Tinthani; Phuket Provicial Police Commander Maj Gen Teeraphol Thipchareon; and other top-raking officials from other government agencies.
“We have been instructed by order of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to co-ordinate with all relevant agencies to uncover the real cause for the incidents on the Andaman Sea off Phuket on July 5,” Gen Surachate said.
“And to prosecute all individuals involved in operating the Phoenix and the Serenata, including people in the private sector and government agencies if they are found to be negligent,” he said.
In carrying out the raids yesterday, officers seized a cache of 33 business documents in Chinese language as well as nine computers, three laptops, more than 1,000 untaxed products that were illegally imported, 21 non-standard life jackets, and one location device for a boat.
Gen Surachate said that the venues and operators were suspected of using nominee shareholders and involved in money laundering.
“The Anti-Money Laundering Office and other organisations have investigated the source of the boats, taxes paid and a guilty history that leads to money laundering,” he said.
“Foreign nominees come to use the resources in Thailand, but Thailand does not get income. Nominees come to grab areas of the Thai people. If nominees are not suppressed today, local people will not have their own place to stand (tomorrow),” he added.
Investigators had found that Woralak “Yui” Rerkchaikarn was a supervisor at TC Blue Dream Co Ltd and a year later became the company owner. She initially had B4 million as her registered capital, but later owned the Phoenix boat with investment amounting to B20-30 million, Gen Surachate explained.
“Officials need to check in depth to find for source of the fund and the real owner,” he added.
Regarding their investigations into the Serenata boat, officials discovered that Lazy Cat Travel Co Ltd rented the boat from TCG Yacht Similan Co Ltd in order to serve tourists.
Anchalee Wittayanantapornkul was identified as Lazy Cat’s Managing Director and Perng Ta Pong as Supervisor.
“The business pattern of both boats is to sell tours online as one-day trips. Each day the boats must rush so they can be ready for the next day,” Gen Surachate said.
“From documented evidence, we believe these operations used nominees to exploit Thai people and to conduct business in Thailand,” Gen Surachet said.
Peerapat Ingpongpan, Director of Amlo’s Case Division 1, said that investigators had found that the operators of one of the boats (not specified) was involved in money laundering.
“From checking the source of money, officials found that more than B1 billion had been laundered. These people had complex plan to avoid checking from officials,” he said.
Gen Surachate also identified Itroj “Chang” Chawanpipatpong was a Managing Partner of TCG Yacht Similan Co Ltd, which rented the Serenata to Lazy Cat Co Ltd.
“We have evidence that identifies Itroj was a manager of Tranlee Co Ltd, which was nominee company from China that was prosecuted and had B1 billion in property seized in 2015,” he said.
In addition, Itroj is currently facing charges of encroaching on land administered by the Agricultural Land Reform Office (Alro), land easily identified by being titled with a SorPorKor land-use document. SorPorKor land may be sued for agricultural purposes only, and always remains the property of the state – it can never be bought or sold.
“He is currently facing prosecution for encroachment in the Nakkerd Hills after an investigation confirmed that the land he was claiming was in a protected forest area,” Gen Surachate explained.
“Also, we found that the life jackets seized from Lazy Cat’s storage unit were not TIS (Thai Industrial Standards Institute (TISI) standard. The life jackets were produced at Lopburi, but the label said that they were produced in Nakhon Ratchasima.
“This information was confirmed by the Office of the Customer Protection Board (OCBD),” he added.
“The OCBD also inspected the boatyard where the Phoenix was built and found that the boat was not built to standard. The boat problem and non-standard life jackets lead to over 40 dead in the boat incident,” Gen Surachate said.
Gen Surachate on Tuesday also confirmed that two suspects had been taken into custody and faced multiple charges, including trespass on government land as well as illegally importing goods into Thailand.
On Monday night, Gen Surachate confirmed that the suspects were being held at Phuket Immigration.
However, he did not confirm exactly who had been arrested.
Gen Surachate warned any persons involved in a company formed through nominee shareholders to cease immediately.
“You can run, but we will find you,” he said.
“It’s easier just to stop right now,” he added.
“As for this investigation, we owe it to the Chinese people to find what the real cause of the disaster was. Was it an accident? Was it the nominee shareholders and how they operated the company? Or was it the boat? We have to find out for them” Gen Surachate said.