Thailand's PM Wary Of Assasination
Thailand's PM Wary Of Assasination
by Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Drug gangs and "dark influences" may be plotting to assassinate Thailand's prime minister while he prepares to visit Washington, but he insists the risk won't stop his war on crime in which more than 2,200 people mysteriously perished.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra stoked much of the concern about his mortal fate by defiantly claiming he is not afraid of being gunned down by his enemies.
Some Thais wonder if he is orchestrating a macho hoax to deflect criticism away from his controversial, blood-splashed policies and garnish personal sympathy.
Others insist Mr. Thaksin courts real danger because this Southeast Asian nation smolders with "terrorism" among its minority Muslim population, and is reeling from a deadly, nationwide government war against methamphetamines and Thailand's notorious, hydra-headed "mafia".
"The [U.S.] State Department is concerned that there is an increased risk of terrorism in Southeast Asia, including Thailand," stated a Consular Information Sheet issued by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok on May 28.
"The far south of Thailand has experienced incidents of criminally and politically motivated violence, including incidents attributed to armed local separatist/extremist groups" which "focus primarily on Thai government interests," it said.
Drug syndicates suffering from the prime minister's anti-methedrine campaign are the main suspects in possible plots to kill Mr. Thaksin, police officials said.
The wealthy, prickly prime minister, meanwhile, is taking no chances in his effort to appear robust before his visit to Washington, scheduled for June 9-11, when he hopes President Bush will honor him with personal face time.
Mr. Thaksin will be hosted in Washington by the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, which aims to sweeten commerce between America and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- which includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
While preparing for his U.S. trip and brainstorming with colleagues on how to continue his anti-crime crackdown, the populist prime minister has been ringed with dramatically increased security.
"About 1,500 security personnel and a 60 million baht (1.4 million U.S. dollar) bomb-disposal robot were deployed to protect Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra during the cabinet's two-day meeting in Phuket," the respected Bangkok Post reported on May 26 when the conference ended.
"The massive security beef-up was prompted by intelligence reports that Mr. Thaksin's life could be in danger as a result of the government's crackdown on mafia influences," the paper said.
"I dare them to stand up to me if they think they are any good," Mr. Thaksin told reporters later that day, reacting to intelligence reports suggesting he was a potential target for drug and crime syndicates.
"Reports have come from our intelligence units that a group of international mafia bosses want to kill me," Mr. Thaksin told journalists on March 11. "This is not a mere threat, they are real."
Earlier, in a law-and-order radio speech in April, the prime minister stunned listeners when he wondered aloud: "Wouldn't I look good dying for the good of the country?
"Why should I be afraid? You only die once."
Death already trails in his wake. The pile of corpses from his February to April "war on drugs" topped 2,200 people, according to police.
Authorities said most victims were smugglers killing other, but human rights activists alleged many of the hits were secret "extrajudicial" executions by trigger-happy cops.
The government denied all such allegations and then clamped a blackout on detailed death toll updates.
After hailing his anti-drug war as a success, Mr. Thaksin announced it had morphed into a crackdown against mafia-style criminals and anyone else who wields a "dark influence" over Thailand's politics, economy and society.
"The mafia have bullied innocent people long enough," Mr. Thaksin told reporters on May 26.
"It is high time they faded out. To me, they are the evil enemy of the public."
Police have "compiled lists of influential persons involved in various categories of offences, such as natural resource destruction, [possession of] war weapons, goods smuggling, gambling business, sex and drug trade, and other crimes and illegal businesses," the prime minister's office announced.
"Government officials who support influential persons would be suppressed," while "gunmen and gangsters who help influential persons will be eliminated," it said.
"Mafia figures will be affected by this nationwide crackdown," the prime minister's office added.
For years, Thais have awoken each morning to a slew of newspaper stories about corruption and other crime among virtually all sectors of society.
Some of Mr. Thaksin's ministers currently suffer allegations of corruption and possible censure votes. Cases also include allegations against ruling Parliament members, health officials, soldiers, police and Buddhist clergy as well as wealthy businessmen and social activists.
They are either on trial, trying to avoid arrest, pleading their innocence or fearing imprisonment for charges ranging from embezzlement to murder.
"It is a pity that some sections of the media have tried to wrongly convince the public that the mafia is mainly men in green [military] uniform," complained Major-General Trairong Indradhat.
"I am not mafia," he said.
Many Thais support efforts to squelch illegal activity, but lament that the top gangsters and politicos always seem to elude arrest.
The imprisonment of Al Capone -- a U.S. Prohibition-era gangster convicted of evading taxes during the 1920s -- showed how Thailand could fight such slippery criminals, the Nation newspaper said.
The May 27 story was illustrated with a sepia photo of Mr. Capone grinning with a cigar in his mouth and a fedora atop his head. Mr. Capone was able to dodge murder charges, so he was successfully imprisoned for denying unclaimed criminal income.
The prime minister, meanwhile, vowed his war on dark influences will continue with the same deadly punch as his anti-drug campaign.
True to his word, two days after Mr. Thaksin broadened his crackdown to include all crime syndicates, police shot dead two alleged gun smugglers on May 22 in Bangkok.
Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/glossograph/