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Investigating the Grey Areas of the Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia

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Arnaud Leveau

The Papers

The Ang-yi or Chinese Secret Societies of Thailand. Understanding a Total Social Phenomenon

Jean Baffie

Texte intégral

Na thi dai mi chao chin apphayop na thi ni cha mi samakhom yu duai samoe.” M.R. Ayumongkol Sonakul, a newspaperman from royal ancestry translates this sentence as “They (the secret societies) existed everywhere there was a large Chinese community” (Sonakul 1985: 16; Leotphanitkun 2525: 1; 2528: 72).

  • 1 We can find different translation. Prof. Subsaeng Phrombun, following a book on secret societies i (...)

1The word ang-yi (อั้งยี่) is quite familiar with the Thai people. However, all Thai dictionaries do not include it. One of the largest Thai-English dictionaries gives “Chinese secret society” and explains that it is a Chinese Teochiu word meaning “samakhom lap khong chao chin” (secret society of the Chinese). It also gives the two Chinese characters, which are written hóng zì, hóng being the red color and meaning “word, sprits, writings, style” (Iamworamate 2532: 1194; anonymous 1980: 148, 545).1 The classical Thai-English dictionary by So Sethaputra (first published in 1965) gives more equivalents: “a Chinese secret society, a tong, a racket” (Sethaputra 1987: 2, 1036). We should already keep in mind that the newest Thai dictionary, published in 2004 gives an essentially juridical definition: an ang-yi is an unlawful organization (anonymous 2547: 962) with no mention of an ethnic group. That is exactly what says the 1962 Lao dictionary of the ministry of Education, which also includes ang-yi with different tones than the Thai word (anonymous 2505: 1081).

2However, until the Fifth Reign of the Chakkri Dynasty Chinese secret societies were known as tua-hia (ตั้วเฮีย) also two Teochiu word meaning “big elder brother”. We don’t know why the word ang-yi came to be so widespread, but it seems that at first it was only the name of a particular Chinese secret society among many other.

The Triad-Century. The official history of the triads in Thailand (Second-sixth reigns of Rattanakosin: early 19th-early 20th centuries)

3Most historians who wrote about ang-yi noted that Thai official records (archives) do not mention ang-yi before the first year of the third reign of the Bangkok dynasty. And concluded that ang-yi were created in Siam during the second reign (1809-1824). However, the chronicles of Ayutthaya mention at least one big scale revolt by Chinese in 1735, during the reign of King Borommakot (1733-1758). About 300 Chinese tried to take over the Royal Palace while the King was in his summer capital of Lopburi. They failed but the palace was badly damaged and forty Chinese leaders were executed (Anonymous 2507: 595-6; Phonnarat 2515: 612; Cushman 2000: 427).

4In the biography of king Rama III (1824-1851) written by king Rama V we find many reference to Chinese Secret Societies, called tua hia at that time (Chulachomklao chaoyua 2530: 82-84). In 1824, about 700 or 800 Teochiu Chinese constituted a secret society in Chanthaburi to oppose a Hokkien Chinese group. Fighting broke several times but the province governor succeeded in seizing the leaders and sending them to jail. In 1842, in Nakhon Chaisi, this time, in the west of Bangkok, three ang-yi, each strong of about one thousand members, made some difficulties with the local authorities. The leaders were caught and sent to Bangkok, but their troops still robbed houses in the province. A large police operation was necessary to subdue them. In 1845, along the western seaboard, Chinese ang-yi indulged in piracy and robbed trader’s ships. Police forces were sent and many Chinese were put in jail. In 1847, fight arose in Samut Sakhon province, South-west of Bangkok, between ang-yi and Siamese troops because of some trafficking in illegal opium. Phraya Mahathep, one of the official sent by Bangkok to restore order was killed. More troops had to be sent.

Illustration 1: Ang-yi Chinese having been defeated in Bangkok at the end of the 19th century. (Source: Wanlayankun 2503: 408)

5Almost at the same time, according to the Royal chronicles, trouble burst at the east of Bangkok. On April 8, 1848 in Chachoengsao province, members of an ang-yi robbed a sugar factory and killed one of the owners, also a Chinese. They resisted the local authorities, killed the governor and took over the inner city on April 10. Two royal armies, one of them headed by famous general Chaophraya Bodindecha, and more than ten days were necessary to subdue the revolt. Thousands of Chinese were killed in Chachoengsao and neighboring Chonburi provinces by Thai and Lao troops sent by Bangkok and by ordinary villagers who joined the massacre (Thiphakorawong 1961: 126-130, etc.).

6In 1867, one year before the end of the reign of King Rama IV, another major ang-yi riot occurred in Phuket, probably related more with the situation in English Malaya. Two ang-yi, the Ngi-hin and the Pun Thao Kong fought each other over a problem of water used to wash tin ore in the mines. Local Thai authorities sent nine ang-yi leaders to Bangkok where they were asked to declare on oath while drinking holy water that they would not cause any more trouble to the kingdom (Damrong 2545: 222-3).

7Under the reign of King Rama V (1868-1910) a number of riots and internal wars by ang-yi burst from time to time. Very serious fights happened in Ranong and Phuket in 1876 (see infra at this page) and in Bangkok, in 1889. In 19-20 June 1889, in Bangkok Chinatown, workers belonging to a Teochiu ang-yi, the Tua Kongsi fought against Hokkien workers from another ang-yi, the Siw Li Kue. More than one thousand Chinese fought each other, twenty being killed and one hundred injured. The Thai army (infantrymen and sailors) had to step in to restore law and order. Eight hundred ang-yi men were arrested, and only ten killed and twenty injured by the Thai soldiers (Damrong 2545: 235-39).

8From then the Thai government decided to implement a harsher policy and officially declared ang-yi illegal (Damrong 2545: 240).

Ang-yi as a first type of trade union

9According to Bevars D. Mabry, who wrote in 1979 a useful data paper (for Cornell University) on labor institutions in Thailand, explains that the Chinese immigrants in Thailand brought with them two types of organizations of some interest for his subject, the guilds and the secret societies (Mabry 1979: 37). He estimated that they existed in Siam since the seventeenth century. They were organized along speech groups and one of their functions was to gain control over certain occupations. Membership was a prerequisite for employment. Many societies existed in Bangkok and, as each of them wanted to enlarge their sphere of influence, conflicts and fights were frequent.

10Ang-yi were not true labor organizations, but they controlled manpower, particularly in rice-mills and saw-mills, railroad works and provided support when strike broke. According to an Thai historian of the local workers movements, although they brought together only Chinese workers and were often manipulated by employers, the ang-yi helped giving a conscience to the workers and having them realize they had a very powerful weapon: the strike (Phiriyarangsan 2528: 57).

11The revolts of the Chinese mining coolies in 1876 under ang-yi leadership in Ranong is well known to English-reading scholars thanks to the work Jennifer Cushman (Cushman 1991: 37-44). Oppressed by their Chinese boss, between 300 and 600 tin miners rose against the mine operators, but also the governor and other officials of Ranong. They succeeded in entering the city of Ranong and killed many local people and government officials. Workers in Phuket also attacked official institution in solidarity with miners in Ranong. The situation worsened and at a point 2,000 Chinese burnt and looted the city of Phuket. The governor met the leaders and promised that living conditions for workers would rapidly improved in Ranong and Phuket. However, only the coming of more regional troops could stop the last rioters.

Ang-yi as a welfare association

12Chinese secret societies in Siam had a function of mutual aid between the members. When a member had to be defended in a law court, the ang-yi was ready to pay for that. If he had to go to jail, the angyi could look after him and be assured he was well treated. And if he died the ang-yi used to care about his corpse according to his will and believes (Loetphanitkun 2525: 5).

13We know well enough only one leader of a secret society. In a footnote, Prince Damrong tells us that before he wrote about Chinese secret societies he talked with phra Anuwat Rachaniyom (or Yi Ko Hong), who used to be hua-na tua-hia i.e. a leader of a secret society, the Hong Moen Thian Ti Hui หงเหมินเทียนตีุฮุย (Damrong 2504: 354; Sia Kwang 2546: 10). In two recent articles, Phanni Bualek and Suwanna Maprasoet, Yi Ko Hong’s granddaughter, wrote a very complete biography of this important Thai Chinese, also known through the name of Hong Techawanit (Bualek 2547; Maprasoet 2547). That very powerful Teochiu man, who used to run gambling dens in Bangkok, was one of twelve founders of the Pô Tek Tueng Foundation in 1910 with other prominent Chinese from the Lamsam and Wanglee families for instance (Anonymous 2513: 65). This welfare foundation, probably the oldest of Thailand, provides help to sick and wounded persons, both Thai and Chinese, and takes especially care of the uncollected corpses after traffic accidents.

Illustration 2: Yi Ko Hong or Hong Techawanit or Phraya Anuwat Rachaniyom, a famous leader of ang-yi. (Source: Anonymous 2513 [1970]: 65.)

14It founded a hospital in July 1938, in Bangkok Chinatown. In 1979, the king of Thailand officially inaugurated a 22-level new hospital. And in 1997, the Hua Chiao Hospital had 56 permanent physicians, 120 consultant physicians, 763 nurses and 638 other employees for 560 beds for patients (anonymous 2540: 20).

Ang-yi and religion

15In a good book on Buddhism in China one can read that the existence of Secret Societies was due to the impact of Buddhism upon Chinese society (Ch’en 1972: 427). From the twelfth to the fourteenth century existed the White Lotus Society, founded by a Buddhist monk, but which accepted monks, laymen, and even women and children. The society was prohibited by decree several times in 1281, 1308,1322. The society was then involved in a number of revolts against the Mongol governments. The White Lotus Society is sometimes considered as an archetype of Chinese secret societies. Another story tells that five Taoist monks from the Hokkien province were at the origin of the first modern secret society when they swore an oath to devote their lives to overthrow the Manchu dynasty and restore the Ming dynasty (Sonakul 1985: 16).

16As for the word ang-yi, now usually used in Thai for Chinese secret society, an author – who gives no reference – explains that the red color (ang) was the sign of a Chinese monk who had a large following and chose dubious means such as intimidation and racket fees to feed them (Sakthaisong n.d.: 17).

17 Ang-yi were hostile to the Christian religion. In Father Perbet’s necrology, a catholic missionary who spent forty years in Chachoengsao, an ang-yi stronghold, the writer mentioned “the systematic and intense opposition by the secret societies» that once besieged the missionary’s house (anonymous 1924: 78, 256).

Ang-yi as a political association

18The first Chinese secret societies were set up with a political objective, to overthrow the Manchu dynasty. However, at the end of the 19th century South-east Asian secret societies had completely forgotten their original political purpose. But they still had constituted a potential political weapon and Sun Yat Sen was conscious of it.

19It is well known that Secret societies had a role in the 1911 nationalist revolution in China. Dr. Sun Yat Sen himself became a member of a secret society, the Chee Kung Tong, when in Honolulu, on January 11, 1904 (Sia Kwang 2546: 7); his rank – a marshal or “Red Stick” – was quite high since he was only subordinate to the Chief (Tsai 1987: 15). Sun Yat Sen clearly intended to transform the secret society from a mere mutual-aid club (with some outlawed activities) into a truly revolutionary organization. The Chinese Secret societies may not have had enough time to become a revolutionary party but they played an important role as fundraiser for active groups in China (Tsai 1987: 18).

20Dr. Sun Yat Sen paid not less than four trips to Siam. He first visited Siam in 1903, then in 1906 (or the end of 1905), and twice in 1908. When he came back at the beginning of 1906, he was already a secret society member (on 11 January 1904) and founded his own society, the T’ung Meng Hui (Thong Moeng Hui or ถงเหมิงฮุ่ย) on 20 August 1905. He founded a local branch of the T’ung Meng Hui and pushed for the setting up of a library and a newspaper. The last time he stayed in Siam, in November-December 1908, Sun Yat Sen met famous Yi Ko Hong, leader of a powerful ang-yi, the Hong Moen Thian Ti Hui หงเหมินเทียนตีุฮุย.

21In Siam, it seems that Chao Phraya Sisuriyawong, a member of the powerful Bunnag family, who acted as Regent of the kingdom for five years after King Rama IV’s death, tried to be particularly protective when dealing with the Chinese and their secret societies. It cannot be discarded that he may have thought they could be precious allies in case he decided to usurp the throne (see the rather suspicious reaction of the young king in Sitthisongkhram 2504: 594). The Regent gave them several privileges. They could be judge by Chinese courts speaking Chinese; they had a special administration within the country with, for instance, district chief for Chinese (nai amphoe chin) beside ordinary district chiefs with powers over Thai people and other minorities. Also, in order to discourage Chinese to place themselves under the protection of European consulates, a position of “Chinese consul under Thai authority” (konsun chin nai bangkhap Sayam) was created (Sitthisongkhram 2504: 587).

22At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, when ang-yi were most restless in Siam, Thai authorities apparently feared that they could become allied with English or French imperialist forces and provide a motivation for them to take over the country. Indeed, the chiefs of some ang-yi were subjects (or protégés) of European governments, French in particular (Sitthisongkhram 2504: 590-591) but for some reasons no strong link was ever made more official. However, when the French gunboat forced the Chao Phraya River in 1893, some Thai officials really feared that the Chinese of Bangkok would be tempted to join the French against the Siamese.

23In an interesting article on ang-yi and godfathers along the Eastern coast, Sisak Wanliphodom explains – and underlines – that learned people whose names he cannot mention here like to say that the founders of some very important families of this country have been pirates (chon salat) (Wanliphodom 2536: 92).

24It is uneasy to say directly that some political parties come from ang-yi, however we know that, in recent history, many political parties tried to have special connections with provincial godfathers – in Chon Buri, Phetchaburi, Khon Kaen, for instance, and that some of these influential people (or members of their families) joined political parties, get elected and sometimes were promoted to ministerial jobs.

The ang-yi and the economy

25Many observers agree that at the end of the 19th century Chinese Secret societies were very powerful in the economic field. Although usually divided, they could unite to prevent the entry of an outsider into a trade, a craft or a line of business, a particular rice mill (Ingram 1971: 211). They were active in the coolie trade and provided many services to the Chinese coolies once in Siam, either legal or not.

26Tax farmers wanted to be associated with a strong secret society to be able to get farms –especially profitable farms such as opium or alcohol farms – at low bids (Praphaphan 2524: 153, 242; Damrong 2504: 354-355). Then, when it was time to effectively collect the taxes in outlying zones such as tin mines or rubber or sugar estates, the protection of a rough tua-hia or ang-yi was a big help.

27Another fundamental service needed by Overseas Chinese was the remittance of money back in their Chinese provinces. We know that at least some of the phoy kwan companies specializing in these transfers were headed by leaders of Ang-yi. The best example is again Phra Anuwat Rachaniyom, best known under the Chinese name of Yi Ko Hong or the Thai name of Hong Techawanit (Tantasuruek 2532: 66).

Opium, illegal alcohol, gambling, prostitution

28These four activities provide entertainment for Chinese coolies (and traders,…), but are also very profitable economic sectors. Prostitution was made illegal in Thailand only in 1960. And opium den used to be frequent until a few decades. Many kinds of gambling – in Casino for instance – have also been made illegal but are still easy to find in Bangkok.

29Oddly enough a dictionary chooses to give song , (ซ่อง) now translated as brothel, as an equivalent of ang-yi (Manitcharoen 2514: 1090). However, archival documents that mention almost only riots and other troubles to the public order by secret societies never directly refer to prostitution.

Illustration 3: Ang-yi Chinese at the opium den. (Source: Wanlayankun 2503: 374.)

  • 2 Liang means “feed, raise, take care of”, khon means “people”, and ha ngoen can be translated by “l (...)

30In 1883 the now well-known Sarabanchi suanthi 2 khu ratsadon… samrap chaophanak-ngan krom praisani krungthepmahanakhon (Bangkok Postal Directory) was published. I counted 38 brothels (usually designated as a place which “liang khon ha ngoen”[shelters for people who are looking for money])2, almost all in small lanes (trok) of Chinatown. At the time, brothels were intimately associated with opium dens (then legal and taxed) and shops selling spirits. Two of the best-known lanes were Trok Tao and Trok Taeng.

31The special tax on prostitutes under the reigns of Rama IV (1851-1868) and Rama V (1868-1910) was called “Tax for the Improvement of the Roads” (phasi bamrung thanon). In fact, the tax was spent in the construction of canals as well as roads. Just as for most of the other taxes, the Thai government proposed bid invitations for each province or groups of provinces, and the person giving the highest bid was appointed chao phasi bamrung muang. Dararat Mettarikanon found in the archives of the 5th reign of Bangkok the names of some of these farmers in Bangkok and Phuket with the sums they remitted to the Siamese state. It is highly probable that some of them – maybe all of them – were members or leaders of ang-yi.

32Obviously, more research is necessary on this topic, particularly since, at least in China one of the most interesting characteristics of the secret societies is their treating men and women on an equal footing (Chesneaux 1975: 111).

Mauss and the ang-yi as total social fact or phenomenon

33When a diaspora takes form in a country, it badly need help, protection, financial channels to send money back home, entertainment, etc. but it is not sophisticated enough to have specialized institutions for each of these needs. Organized along speech-group lines, at least in Bangkok and Central Siam, the ang-yi were first global or total organizations, which could respond more or less to the new situation of Chinese abroad.

34In his famous «Essai sur le don», Marcel Mauss explains that “in these «total social phenomenon» as we suggest to name them we encounter at the same time many types of institutions: religious, juridical and moral – and these ones related both to the political area and the family – economic – et that included production and consumption (…); and also aesthetic aspects…” (Mauss 1950: 147). In the conclusion of his article, Mauss used the expression “total social fact” and “general social fact” because “they concern in some case the whole society with all these institutions and, in other cases, only a large number of these institutions” (Mauss 1950: 274). I give as hypothesis that at the early stages of their development the ang-yi could be held as a good example of “total social phenomenon” or “total social fact”.

35We cannot understand a complex social phenomenon if we only consider its present stage. Historians of 19th century secret societies like to write that they had both good and bad points. But, as all the good points have given birth to legal and officially sanctioned institutions, associations, foundations, clubs or political organizations, were left only the outlawed activities which used to be just means to get money then diverted to many actions, many of them quite positive. But, at present, these traffics, or production of imitations, etc. have for only purpose to enhance the wealth of the leaders of the gangs or mafias. Professor Suesaeng Phrombun is right when he suggest to interview elder people of Chinese family name associations or staff attached to Chinese sanctuaries to learn more about ang-yi of the past (Phrombun 2525: 6).

What is left is a – of course illegal – mafia

36In 1897, when registration became necessary for all Chinese organizations, some secret societies preferred to go underground. It is hard to believe that ang-yi just disappeared in Siam during the reign of Rama the Sixth. What we can say, however, is that records no longer use the word but prefer other more neutral ones. William Skinner himself admitted that Chinese secret societies were revived in 1938-39 to oppose the influence of the Japanese (Skinner 1957: 265).

37Chinese riots happened twice in Bangkok Chinatown since 1925, once in September 1945, the other in July 1974. In 1945, riots broke out when Chinese leaders celebrating the victory over the Japanese hoisted up the Chinese and European flags while forgetting to hoist up the Thai flag. Since Chinese in Bangkok had kept some weapons used against the Japanese, there were sequences of true urban guerrilla. At least seven Chinese were killed (Patthamasukhon 2517: 482-487; Skinner 1957: 279). More recently in July 1974, riots broke in Chinatown because of the violent arrest of a Chinese taxi driver by policemen. It resulted in 25 Chinese killed and about one hundred injured. The international situation was very different. Thailand was about to recognize Red China and put an end to official relations with Taiwan. In none of these cases official reports mentions the possibility of the presence of ang-yi people.

38In an interesting article in Thai published in 1990 (and published again in 1993) respected scholar Sisak Wanliphodom suggested that the Chao Pho or godfathers of the Eastern coast of Thailand were the descendants of the ang-yi and the nakleng-to, a Thai tradition of “big boss” or kindhearted outlaws.

39As many Chao Pho and local politicians are second-generation Chinese, whose fathers might have been ang-yi members, it could be concluded that old fashioned ang-yi have not completely disappeared but have flourished in some regions or have climbed the social ladder.

Bibliographie

References

Note on the sources:

To my knowledge there is no English or French book, report, thesis or academic article on Chinese secret societies in Thailand. Of course, William Skinner’s book on “Chinese society in Thailand” gives much general information on the subject, and other English works deal with specific events, see for instance the secret society revolt of 1876 in Ranong, Southern Thailand in Family and State. The formation of a Sino-Thai Tin-mining dynasty, 1797-1932 by Jennifer Cushman (Cushman 1991).

Many Thai language books and articles give some information on Chinese Secret Societies in Thailand, however there is two major references. “Ruang ang-yi”, a 33 page-long chapter in Nithan Boranakhadi, one of the best known publication in Thailand, first published in 1944 by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, and an unpublished master degree thesis by Suppharat Loetphanitkun, who was later engaged as a teacher by Sukhothai Thammathirat university (see Loetphanitkun 2525, 2528). Among non academic works I founded two where ang-yi are covered with much detail: “Tua-hia” by Phoemsak Wanlayakun (1960: 373-476) that was first broadcasted in a local radio and a slim (112 p.) volume by Charoen Tanmahaphrom, in 1999, that covers several types of Chinese violent crimes and not just ang-yi (Tanmahaphrom 2503).

Anonymous 1924 “Nécrologie du reverend Père Perbet” Echos de l’Assomption 43: (June) pp. 78, 252-258 (in French and Thai).

Anonymous 1980 Times Chinese-English Dictionary Hong Kong. Federal Publications. The Commercial Press, 546 p.

Anonymous 1991 “Two charged over use of forged share certificates. Taiwanese, Thai suspected of ties with HK Triads” The Bangkok Post (30 March) p. 15.

Anonymous 1997 “Crime: Police alert against HK gangsters. Triads might try to flee to Thailand” (AFP) The Bangkok Post (27 June) p. 3.

Anonymous 2505 [1962] Atchanukrom phasa lao khong kasuang suksathikhan (Thai language dictionary of the ministry of Education) Vientiane. 1145 p.

Anonymous 2507 [1964] Phraratcha pongsawadan krung Sayam (chak ton chabap khong britit miwsiam) (Royal chronicles of Siam, from a manuscript held at the British Museum) Bangkok. Kaona, 743 p.

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Anonymous 2526b [1983] “Babuankan ang-yi” (the Ang-yi movement) Sakun Thai 29, 1485 (5 April) p. 51 and 29, 1486 (12 April) p. 49.

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Ellithorpe, Harold 1974 “The Asian Mafia” The Asia Magazine (29 December) pp. 5-10.

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Notes

1 We can find different translation. Prof. Subsaeng Phrombun, following a book on secret societies in Malaya, understands that ang-yi or hung-yi can be literally translated as “Hong, the just” and was the title of Ch’en Chin-nan, the founder of the first Triad (Phrombun 2525: 7).

2 Liang means “feed, raise, take care of”, khon means “people”, and ha ngoen can be translated by “looking for money”. It is evident that only the central part of Bangkok is covered. For example, the Phayanak area, later well known for its motels with prostitutes, has not been included.

Table des illustrations

Légende Illustration 1: Ang-yi Chinese having been defeated in Bangkok at the end of the 19th century. (Source: Wanlayankun 2503: 408)
URL http://books.openedition.org/irasec/docannexe/image/327/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 162k
Légende Illustration 2: Yi Ko Hong or Hong Techawanit or Phraya Anuwat Rachaniyom, a famous leader of ang-yi. (Source: Anonymous 2513 [1970]: 65.)
URL http://books.openedition.org/irasec/docannexe/image/327/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 92k
Légende Illustration 3: Ang-yi Chinese at the opium den. (Source: Wanlayankun 2503: 374.)
URL http://books.openedition.org/irasec/docannexe/image/327/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 141k

Auteur

IRSEA CNRS-University of Provence Marseille, France
Sociologist and an historian. He published several papers on the Chinese communities in Thailand and South-East Asia. He is a member of the CNRS and teaches at the Institute of Research on South-East Asia (IRSEA) and at the House of Asia and Pacific. His paper explains very clearly the roots and the origins of the Ang-Yi (the Chinese secret societies in Thailand). He also offers a note on the foreign mafias operating in Thailand.

© Institut de recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est contemporaine, 2007

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