Bangkok (AFP) - A craze in Thailand for pampering lifelike dolls to bring good fortune doesn't seem to have done the trick for some vendors, who on Tuesday were raided by police on charges of tax avoidance.
Known in Thai as "luuk thep" (child angels), the pricey dolls, which can cost up to $600, were first popularised by celebrities who claimed dressing up and feeding the dolls had brought them professional success.
Doll-mania has since taken off across deeply superstitious Thailand, with adults bringing the figures to Buddhist ceremonies, restaurants and even on planes, where they have reportedly been issued seats and served mid-flight refreshments.
But after Thailand's police chief warned this week the fad was going too far, officers on Tuesday confiscated more than 100 dolls and arrested three vendors in Bangkok for allegedly failing to pay import taxes.
"Mostly they imported [the dolls] from China," Colonel Kriangsak Kanrayawattanajaroen, deputy commander of the Economic Crime Suppression Division, told AFP.
He added that the vendors had avoided paying more than 100,000 baht ($2,750).
The bust followed reports this week that Thai Smile airline was offering ticketed seats and meals to the dolls, accommodating owners who did not want to stow them as carry-on luggage.
Thai media published a leaked airline memo that defined the "child angels" as "a doll that is alive".
The memo said the dolls should be placed in window seats so as not to disturb other passengers and that seatbelts should be worn during take off and landing, according to reports.
Thai Smile declined to comment when contacted by AFP.
A state-owned bus operator, Transport Co., is charging half-priced tickets for the dolls, who will "receive full service, including food and drink," a PR representative told AFP.
But transportation companies aren't the only businesses seizing upon the fad to turn a profit.
On Monday Thai police found a doll packed with 200 methamphetamine pills in an airport parking lot in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
"It's the first case that traffickers have used a 'child angel' to traffic drugs," said Chiang Mai's deputy commander Colonel Mongkol Samphawaphol.
"In the past we've only seized ordinary dolls," he added.
Thai anthropologist Visisya Pinthongvijayakul told AFP that while the angel doll trend only started last year, the practice has roots in the ancient occult worship of preserved foetuses thought to contain a child's spirit.
More than 90 percent of Thais identify themselves as Buddhist. But the country's Buddhism is known for its syncretism, comfortably blending many animist and Hindu traditions into daily worship.
Visisya said he has seen many shopkeepers and vendors buy the new angel dolls in hope that the talismans will boost sales during currently bleak times for Thailand's stuttering economy and ongoing political instability.
"From the perspective of Thais this is a very uncertain time," said Visisya, citing the plunging price of rubber and the ruling military junta's lid on dissent.
"I think this is a practice that reflects an unstable and critical moment in Thai society."