Fugitive ‘Sia Pang Na Node’ exposes corruption on the run: Escaped inmate’s social media videos prompt wider and in-depth investigation into alleged injustice in Phatthalung province.

The escape of a convicted felon serving over twenty years in prison has risen slowly in the minds of the public to a point this week that sensational video claims of corruption and unfairness in the criminal legal system in Phatthalung province have come to dominate the national airwaves out of Bangkok leading to a wider crisis of confidence in the rule of law. Based on the convict’s claims, an investigation was opened by the Office of the Attorney-General (OAG) with eight people summoned, some of them police officers, before a Southern Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct on December 22nd.

During the week, Police Chief General Torsak Sukwimol adopted a harder line with Sia Pang Na Node or Chaowalit Thongduang (inset), insisting on no negotiations and that the prisoner surrenders unconditionally. The police chief and senior officers insist that the fugitive is still in Thailand.

His name is Chaowalit Thongduang, also known as ‘Sia Pang Na Node’.

Since October 22nd, he has gradually come to dominate the news headlines in Thailand.

This was the day on which the convicted felon, who was imprisoned in Nakhon Si Thammarat province for 20 years and 6 months for a 2019 kidnapping and attempted murder case which also included rape charges, escaped during a hospital visit in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

The news immediately sparked controversy with several prison officers being relieved of their posts and orders for the quick recapture of the prisoner coming from Bangkok.

Criminal figure with fourteen convictions some for violent crime, makes waves in his alleged pursuit of justice while on the run through social media

Sia Node, a criminal figure with fourteen convictions over sixteen years in the South and especially in Phatthalung province, was a member of an armed gang that kidnapped a Mr Sittidet Songdet also known in the underworld as ‘Rocket’, a scion of a wealthy and connected family in Phatthalung province at gunpoint and only returned him when millions of baht were paid over including an initial payment of ฿1.5 million which was reportedly paid over to a group of men at the family’s home, some of them young police officers.

The kidnapping incident which the charges relate to was linked to a complex turf war involving drug dealing gangs and illicit connections with local police, at least according to Mr Chaowlalit who claimed he was scapegoated while others were ordered not to be charged over the affair.

Since then, the fugitive has been the subject of an intense manhunt on the Banthat mountain range in Ban Nai Tra in the Tamat district of Phatthalung province which at one point involved helicopters and over 500 police and paramilitary personnel in a month-long manhunt intensely supervised by Royal Thai Police headquarters in Bangkok. 

PM Srettha Thavisin was quick to ask to be briefed on the case given public unease at the revelations and grassroots support for an escaped prisoner

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin even demanded conferences with the police chief General Torsak Sukwimol over the incident which was seen as undermining state security and has been closely watched by Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsutin, a former Minister of Justice.

Range of security issues confront PM before meeting National Police Chief General Torsak Sukwimol including Chinese beggars seen on Bangkok’s streets

Since then, there have been reports that Mr Chaowalit has escaped from the mountain, something which is being confirmed by police sources who claimed they know the names of locals who helped the convict while orders were also given quietly that the manhunt be scaled down. 

In the rugged terrain of Banthat mountain range, a dramatic series of events involving the escape of Mr Chaowalit or ‘Sia Pang Na Node’ unfolded leaving authorities grappling, at one point this week, with a manhunt, justice claims from the fugitive’s viral social media posts in the form of videos on the run raising the complexities of law enforcement in the challenging conditions of Southern Thailand, a region suffering from lack of economic development, corruption and a serious drug problem which is undermining security as well as the ongoing local Muslim insurgency which also impacts the province.

Police in a rugged, inhospitable mountain area of Phatthalung faced formidable challenges tracking him in recent weeks with the hunt now wound down

Amid heavy rain, flash floods, and dense fog, the police, led by Police Colonel Rungroj Usama, Investigation Superintendent, Phatthalung Province, faced formidable challenges in their pursuit of Pang Na Node.

At the same time, Royal Thai Police forces, stationed near Tha Chang Waterfall and Mom Chui Waterfall, were eventually reported on the brink of withdrawal, leaving behind only checkpoints and extraction points on village roads.

Previously, Pang Na Node, having anticipated the police officer’s lack of expertise in the mountainous area, successfully eluded the Thai Border Police 54, known as ‘Dan Thai 54,’ during a shootout.

The escape highlighted the shortcomings of the police operating in the mountainous terrain, allowing Pang Na Node to slip away unharmed.

In a later video circulated on social media the fugitive referred to this and explained that he could have shot and injured armed police officers on his trail but did not want to commit any further criminal acts and was simply seeking justice.

Reports Chaowalit escaped across the sea to either East Timor or Indonesia but police still insist Sia Node is in Thailand while seeking his surrender

Where the reports differ is that senior police officers insist Mr Sia Node or Mr Chaowalit is still in Thailand while increasingly there are reports of the fugitives being rescued from Phatthalung province from the coast in the Andaman Sea and transported by a powerful speedboat to either East Timor or Indonesia by a well resourced drug gang.

In some videos which have gone viral on Thai social media, Mr Chaowalit claims that he was scapegoated for being the only party among over half a dozen participants in the 2019 kidnapping to be prosecuted.

His claims have been taken seriously by the Office of the Attorney-General (OAG) which promptly ordered an investigation.

Furthermore, there was news on Tuesday that a prosecution is to be commenced against several senior police officers linked with the case, something that is already generating controversy with senior police officers rushing to defend those who may be facing charges amidst the public outcry and confusion generated by the persuasive videos featuring Mr Chaowalit who also appears to have strong local support.

Video clips give details of his 2020 prosecution following the 2019 kidnapping for ransom operation in which he claims he was singled out unfairly

The unfolding drama took an unexpected turn with the release of video clips by Pang Na Node.

In these clips, he claims to be a victim of injustice, alleging widespread malpractice within the justice system. Pang Na Node has pointed the finger at the authorities, asserting that his petitions to the Justice Ministry while locked up went unanswered and that he had been unfairly incarcerated.

Nonetheless, there are reports in Bangkok this week that while senior Office of the Attorney-General (OAG) executives are pushing for further prosecutions, technically they consider the prosecution and conviction of Mr Chaowalit or Sia Pang Na Node was legal or within the law.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin urged Pang Na Node to surrender, emphasising that continued flight would only lead to further trouble while Police Chief General Torsak Sukwimol has adopted a more hardline stance, warning the convict that he faced a lifetime on the run if he failed to surrender while claiming no room could be made to negotiate with him while his claims would be looked into.

The video clips, circulating on social media, portrayed Pang Na Node’s perspective, alleging denial of bail and framing in a drug case, among other grievances.

Credible reports of support from security services

Additionally, there are credible reports that his escape may have been assisted by senior officers within the security establishment.

It is clear that Sia Pang Na Node has substantial grassroots support in Phatthalung province, which is predominantly Buddhist with Muslims only accounting for 11.1% of the population. 

One of the claims being made in recent days by senior police officers close to the Royal Thai Police Chief was that he was unable to escape to Malaysia because he was a devout Buddhist.

This was before reports circulated of his possible escape by speedboat to East Timor or Indonesia, where crime and drug gangs are reported to have extensive capabilities to facilitate his security.

The Attorney-General swiftly ordered an investigation into Pang Na Node’s claims.

Spokesperson Prayuth Phetkun, this week, stated that a prosecutor implicated in the 2020 case linked to the 2019 kidnapping involving Pang Na Node had been identified.

Many suspects in the 2019 abduction evaded charges while Sia Pang Na Node was convicted and handed down a sentence of 20 years and 6 months in prison

The case revealed a stark contrast – while several suspects, including the prosecutor, evaded indictment, Pang Na Node faced trial, conviction, a sentence of over 20 years imprisonment and subsequent escape.

Thailand’s Justice Minister, the southern and predominantly Muslim Prachachart Party’s Police Colonel Tawee Sodsong, emphasised a commitment to a thorough inquiry into the inmate’s claims.

He said that amidst the allegations of corruption and procedural misconduct, the truth sought in the investigation will determine the credibility of the justice system.

As forces on the ground face defeat in Phatthalung from the environment and the accused’s evasion tactics, Police Chief Torsak Sukwimol moved to reassure the public of progress.

He disclosed knowledge, in recent days, that police are aware that Pang Na Node descended the mountain, but insisted that he was confident in the belief that the fugitive remained in Thailand.

Police force and senior officials face a challenge in dealing with one man’s struggle for justice as the case threatens wider revelations and insights

The police faced a dual challenge – navigating the tough geographical conditions and dealing with the scepticism of residents.

While the police commander acknowledged a lack of confidence in some quarters, he vowed to restore trust among the public in the province in the Royal Thai Police.

Trying to regain the initiative, the Police Chief addressed Pang Na Node directly, urging him to surrender.

He assured him that unconditional surrender would guarantee his safety, but he also warned that escaping would condemn him to a life on the run.

General Torsak emphasised the commitment of the police force to due process and encouraged the accused and the wider public to rely on the justice system rather than social media sentiment.

As the investigation into Pang Na Node’s claims continues, the Attorney General’s Office assured the public of a prompt release of the analysis results of the 2020 case within the coming week.

The unfolding saga of Pang Na Node encompasses the complexities of justice, law enforcement challenges, and the delicate balance between public perception and institutional integrity.

It has just been announced that the Director of Public Prosecutions for the Anti-Corruption Case Office of Region 9 covering Phatthalung is preparing to summon 8 suspects to appear before the Region’s Criminal Corruption and Misconduct Court on December 22nd in a development linked with the revelations of Mr Chaowalit Thongduang or Sia Pang Na Node.

As Thailand watches events unfold, the resolution of the Pang Na Node saga holds significance not only for the involved parties but also for the broader public’s trust in the justice system and law enforcement.

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Further reading:

Sia Pang Na Node, a prisoner’s fight for justice against a corrupt legal system while on the run

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