They just up and walked off.

Thirty AK-102's missing in Narathiwat, one found on a slain insurgent. Crime Pill #18

Dear expats and readers,

It kind of grabs you by the boo-boo when you find that an obscure report about the southern Thailand insurgency makes it to The Washington Postzero comments on the article, mind.

As noted yesterday, a follower on Twitter asked me what the deal was with those missing guns down in Narathiwat. I’d seen a headline in Thai about it, and started to dig a bit into the story after the question.

After all, it’s a topic that I’ve held a fair amount of interest in, and I cover it when I can. Like most crime threads, I can only cover it as much as time allows: like in this story about an BRN insurgent ambush on Thai coppers back in January.

Or in this report, which I found on a Yala province Facebook news group, which was a statement from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional on the 1 year anniversary of peace negotiations with the Thai government.

For those of us in Thailand, it’s easy to keep what’s happening in the “scary 3” southern provinces — Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat — out of mind. It’s not every day that a foreigner books a ticket to travel down that way, although I’ve heard there are beautiful national parks there.

But it’s not the kind of thing that can be brushed under the rug. From the reading I’ve done — and I’m no expert here — the conflict stretches back decades, and it’s likely to be a festering boil on Thailand’s rump for decades to come.

So what about those guns?

A report dated May 24th detailed twenty-eight AK-102's missing from the Narathiwat Territory Volunteer Company in the Mueang district of Narathiwat. The incident is said to have taken place on May 18th during the day.

On May 19th, Mr. Mayu Sohgute, Deputy District Chief of Narathiwat went to wag his chin with a detective at Narathiwat Police Station.

The matter at hand? The missing guns at the volunteer's armory.

Other reports earlier in May stated that there were missing guns in thirteen other Narathiwat districts, too.

One of the volunteers who was in charge of the arsenal "kept bringing firearms out of the inventory" but the cause is still unknown.

The report does float the idea that there could be a bad actor on the inside who raided the armory for its goodies.

The armory's missing AK-102's weren't detected until a slain insurgent had been found with one of the firearms on his person after being shot dead.

Another report is clear to note that there have been no attempts to keep the press out of the situation, but also states there has been a secret investigation underway to root out the truth about the missing AK-102's.

Lt. Gen. Kriangkrai Srirak, a veteran soldier of 35 years and commander of the 4th Army Region, said that the Royal Thai Army has taken over the case. He wants the investigation accelerated to find the guilty thief.

The village heads of the three southern provinces have been ordered to inspect firearms in their local communities: check their registration and compare with the AK-102's.

If I put myself in the shoes of the Thai soldiers that are down that way, I'd want those AK-102's found sooner than later.

The story’s on my radar, of course — and I reckon that it’s one that we’ll see some resolution on soon enough.

This isn’t one of those stories that gets all the media whipped up in a frenzy, but Lt. Gen. Kriangkrai Srirak strikes me as a guy that means what he says: he wants the thief caught, and soon.

Review of Jake Needham’s Mongkok Station

I’ve often scratched my head when some readers claim that once they start a book, they just have to finish it.

I never understood that philosophy. It doesn’t seem practical in any sense.

I mean, let’s say you’re starved, and you sit down to a plate of Chinese take-out. Everybody loves a Chinese plate, but expectations at western Chinese joints are tempered: it’s cheap, it hits that spot in the gut that only Chinese can hit. You can count on it.

The lukewarm slop sits there on the plate, begging to be eaten, but out pokes a surprise from the oily chow mein: a thick, stubborn black hair.

You don’t have to twist my arm to scrape supper — Chow Mein Surprise — into the bin.

Books are the same for me.

And I’ll be perfectly frank here: a fair share of the crime mysteries, detective capers, and thrillers set in Asia offend my reading palette just like a plate of Chow Mein Surprise. If I read another book that has the main character sniffing tail around Soi Cowboy, I might toss my Kindle against the wall (I hope it wouldn’t break, I shelled out 5,000 baht for the damn thing on Lazada).

It’s a genre that I love, don’t get me wrong — I write about crime in Thailand, after all — and so you’d think that a yarn about the same would satisfy.

But so often, the story’s woven by an unskilled hand. You end up with a mess. Poor plotting, wooden characters, fuzzy prose. And once a book reads like a true dud, I just give up on it.

This is not the case with Needham’s Mongkok Station.

First, a quick note about the author before I get to the book.

Jake Needham shouldn’t need an introduction, but for those few that don’t know the name: he’s a true-blue Asia old hand, having worked and lived in the region for decades; he’s penned 13 novels, no small feat; and has sold ungodly sums of books.

On my first trip to Thailand, I actually found a copy of his first novel, a standalone called The Big Mango, which was published in 1999. And I’ve re-read it again since — because it still stands as one of the best in Thailand set fiction.

Mongkok Station isn’t a stand-alone, it’s actually the sixth volume in a series that follows the work of Singaporean homicide detective Samuel Tay. For the sake of full transparency, I haven’t read Needham’s other Samuel Tay novels — although I have read a few of his Jack Shepherd novels, a separate series. Funnily enough, Shepherd does make an appearance in Mongkok Station, which was a pleasant surprise.

The fact that I hadn’t read previous volumes in the Samuel Tay series didn’t detract from the enjoyment of Mongkok Station — it reads as a standalone, that is to say, the novel has a clear beginning, middle, and end.

It doesn’t leave the readers on a faulty cliffhanger — something that serial novelists have a bad habit of doing. And although the character of Samuel Tay would endear to readers of past volumes immediately, I still got a very clear sense of who this Singaporean homicide cop was: Needham didn’t just assume that the reader was familiar with Tay, and I think he expertly painted the character on the page for newbies to the series and old readers alike.

I had a hunch I’d like this book when I found the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows right before the first chapter.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed

Everybody knows the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking

Everybody knows the captain lied

Everybody got this broken feeling

Like their father or their dog just died

Needham has a fine musical taste, that much is clear.

The story opens up in Hong Kong:

Hong Kong is a city of splendor and sorrow. It is smooth, sophisticated, and sly, but it is also ruthless, scheming, and cruel. And it’s as doomed as Jack Kennedy riding through Dallas in the back of an open car.

And the reader is thrown into the mix of a city in war with itself: its past and future, the West vs. China, young and old.

Needham constructs Hong Kong as a character in itself in the story: and it’s done by an author who evidently knows the city well. You get little tidbits about the city that only come from hanging around it long enough.

Hong Kong captured my imagination the first time I stepped foot in the city, and although I haven’t spent much time there — two trips — the way Needham writes Hong Kong makes intuitive sense even for readers who aren’t intimate with the city.

One thread of the story follows the pro-democracy demonstrations, as Samuel Tay ends up in the middle of teargas soaked skirmishes between protestors and police. I liked that part of the book, as it sets a kind of chaotic, high-stakes backdrop to the story.

But the story isn’t really about Hong Kong.

Mongkok, a district ruled by triads and vice, and home to a teeming mass of Hong Kongers and busy markets, is where a young woman, Emma, goes missing.

Not just any young woman — Emma’s the love child of Hong Kong’s leader and the Vice President of the United States. Her father’s identity was kept secret from her for her entire life, as a matter of geopolitical security — or maybe just to spare her feelings. It’s a clever conceit, to be honest, as it represents the tug-of-war that Hong Kong itself endures with its own identity.

Emma being the daughter of America’s VP is why Samuel Tay gets pulled into the case. Special Agent John August, leader of an elite group only referred to as The Band, has been tasked to find Emma — and August wants Samuel Tay’s help.

What follows is a tale that reads easy and pulls you from page to page, because from the very beginning you want to know what the hell happened to Emma.

And although it’s a smooth ride for the reader — no major plot holes, good pacing, well-crafted prose — Samuel Tay doesn’t have it so easy.

As he’s on the hunt for the missing Emma, he starts coughing up blood. First he thinks it’s because of teargas when he unintentionally got swept up in a demonstration. But the blood comes again. And then again. I won’t spoil what Tay’s diagnosis is, but it adds a personal depth and sympathy for him in the story.

One character that steps into the story about half-way in — a triad boss that goes by Jones — raised plenty of questions for me as the tale unfolded: does he really want to help Tay? Is he behind the murder? The triad’s addition to the tale upped the ante. As you read, you don’t know if he’s behind the murders or if he’s really trying to help Tay solve the case. And the only way to find out is to read to the very end.

Along the way, there’s a great deal of humor, with plenty of lines that gave me a laugh. That’s always a sign that a book is worth finishing.

There’s a twist at the end of the story that I’m still stewing over. I’m not sure how I feel about it, but damn, it did hurt to read, as I’d grown to care about the characters in the telling.

I’ll leave the review on that note, because I don’t want to spoil the story for others. I’m off to read the first Samuel Tay novel now anyway.

Mongkok Station hit the spot, just like a plate of Chinese should do — especially when in Hong Kong.

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Until tomorrow’s Crime Pill, stay safe out there everybody.

- True Crime Thailand