The conviction and sentencing of Thailand’s former Deputy Interior Minister, Vatana Asavahame, on corruption charges bought back some fond memories for me.
Visiting Chiang Saen in 1994 I was struck by the sight of this tour boat on the banks of the Mekong River. A little bit of research uncovered that it was owned by a company called MP Tour and Travel which was itself was owned by none other than Vatana Asavahame. Vatana was a Mekong integration pioneer and was hoping to cash in on what he thought would be a lucrative tourist trade up the Mekong river to Sipsongpanna. I think he managed one or two high profile trips, but the Mekong rapids and regulatory restrictions imposed by Burma and Laos ultimately defeated him. He also built a shopping centre close to the Golden Triangle. It had a big statue of a horse out the front, a symbolic reference to a former era of upper-Mekong trade. But whenever I visited, the shops were all but deserted.
Since then others have followed in his Mekong path, carving out a more lucrative business.
Vatana was also rumoured to have another interesting Mekong sideline. Here is a quote from my book, The Legend of the Golden Boat:
In 1996 I also heard rumours that a prominent Thai businessman and politician [Vatana] was active in the export of water up river from Chiang Saen to China. Of course he claimed that the water was fuel, but it is likely that the fuel – imported into Thailand tax-free as a transit cargo – was profitably sold on the domestic market through his national network of services stations. (76)
Thank goodness Thailand is now entering a new era of judicial integrity when the shenanigans of the elite will no longer be tolerated!