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Cinematic Plot

Chhota Rajan's escape story rivals a Bollywood blockbuster

By Bertil Lintner/Bangkok

If the Thai police are to be believed, Chhota Rajan tied a couple of bedsheets together and climbed down from his heavily-guarded room on the fourth floor of Bangkok's Samitivej Hospital, where he had been since he was shot and wounded in the Thai capital on September 15.

Another version is that the still infirm Indian gangster used a rope to scale down to the street below. Rajan's Thai lawyer, Sirichai Piyaphichetkul had a simpler explanation: Rajan paid 25 million baht ($ 580,000) to Thai police major-general Kriekphong Phukprayoon-who later denied it-in exchange for his freedom. He simply walked out of Samitivej to a car waiting outside to drive him away to safety.

Rajan's escape and the police's fanciful account of what happened at Samitivej on November 24 have caused considerable embarrassment in Thailand. Nine non-commissioned police officers have been sacked for "grave negligence".

Sirichai claimed that Rajan phoned him from "abroad" to tell him about the bribe. He said Rajan was in Cambodia and was intending to go to a third country, possibly in Europe. According to another version by Sirichai, Rajan is in a southeast Asian country, planning to continue his journey to "somewhere" in the middle east.

Speculation aside, it is obvious that Rajan had every reason to fear for his life in Bangkok and that his escape was carefully planned. The gunmen who were sent to kill him, identified as followers of rival mafia boss Dawood Ibrahim, have vowed to fulfil their mission as soon as they are released. It may be some time before the three Pakistanis who were apprehended after the shootout walk free, but other gunmen from Dawood's gang are suspected to have arrived in Bangkok waiting for a chance to kill Rajan.

So where did Rajan go? It would have been foolish of him to try to leave via any of Thailand's airports, where the immigration authorities maintain computer records of everyone entering and leaving the country. The fastest and easiest overland escape route would be a five-hour drive from Bangkok to the Cambodian border. Cambodian immigration authorities issue visas on the spot to anyone for $20. Rajan could then have continued by car to Phnom Penh, and from there left by air to any destination in Asia, the middle east, Europe or Australia.

Another possibility would have been the more than 24 hour-long drive down to the Malaysian border. It is possible to sneak across undetected as hordes of illegal immigrants and smugglers do all the time. Given that Rajan used to be based in Malaysia and has extensive contacts within the Indian community there, it would be possible for him to hide there till the uproar over his escape died down. Then he could arrange a passport and leave for a safer destination. Thailand's only other land borders are with Myanmar and Laos, which are not considered likely escape routes.

Regardless of how he escaped, Rajan's escape from Thailand means that an important chapter in his criminal career has come to an end. Following a bloody turf war in Mumbai, he relocated to Malaysia and Australia before entering Thailand in January this year on an Indian passport issued in the name Vijay Daman.

He was given a tourist visa, but in May asked to have his status changed to that of a business visitor, which would have made it possible for him to obtain a licence to operate a company he had founded in Bangkok. Called Daman Import-Export, it ostensibly exported dried fish from Thailand to Hong Kong. But it is suspected that the company was a front for his illegal activities and a business visa would have enabled him to stay on in Thailand.

Rajan's near-perfect set-up in Bangkok went up in a burst of gunfire three months ago and recreating such a set-up may not be that easy with Dawood's men hot on his tail.

This article first appeared in The Week, December 10, 2000

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