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Thai Terror Concerns Heightened As APEC Approaches

Thai Terror Concerns Heightened As APEC Approaches


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- U.S. President George Bush and 20 other leaders meet next week in this nervous "Land of Smiles" where Bangkok's pro-U.S. government is trying to mummify anti-American dissent, stop Islamic terrorists destroying airplanes and hotels, and get taxi drivers to watch for shoulder-fired rockets.

Police shot bullets from a typical metal crutch used by crippled people to demonstrate to officers at a police station how seemingly innocuous items could disguise terrorists' weapons.

Police also displayed shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft rocket launchers to nearly 5,000 intrigued taxi drivers and other transport workers at a special training exercise, and asked them to alert authorities if anyone tried to fire such missiles from the elevated highway which runs alongside the length of Bangkok's vulnerable Don Muang international airport.

"Air Force Chief Konsak Wantana said the main concern was that commercial planes could be hijacked and hit APEC leaders' aircraft in mid-air," the Bangkok Post reported.

Thailand's U.S.-built F-16 fighter jets will protect Thai airspace during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit which peaks on Oct. 20-21. Helicopters will zoom above official motorcades to provide security when leaders are transported through Bangkok's grimy streets.

Possible threats also include poisoned food, spices or wine, so official testers will sample APEC leaders' meals.

Immigration officials with a government-issued "blacklist", meanwhile, will stop the arrival of pro-democracy activists, human rights officials, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others who might stage protests during the APEC forum.

The blacklist, combined with a ban on demonstrations, resulted in widespread complaints by human rights leaders and activists who vowed to defy the crackdown.

"Why do royal guests have to be faced with protests?" an exasperated Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra asked journalists last week.

"What would happen if a terrorist mingled with them?"

The government's biggest fear is Muslim fighters inspired by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network may be planning to assassinate President Bush and other leaders, or bomb soft targets such as tourist venues and transportation infrastructure.

In addition to President Bush, leaders will include Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

A total of 21 countries and territories with coastlines that open to the Pacific Ocean will send leaders to APEC, including Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.

"Russia is prepared to contribute," Mr. Putin said in a published statement of Moscow's interest in the 11th APEC forum.

"I am referring to the development of a new energy structure in the Asia-Pacific region, and above all in East Asia, through the creation of a system of oil and natural gas pipelines and tanker deliveries of liquefied natural gas from the eastern areas of Russia which have considerable hydrocarbon resources," Mr. Putin wrote.

Most APEC leaders arrive on Sunday (Oct. 19).

On Monday (Oct. 20), they meet Prime Minister Thaksin, King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit and consult among themselves, continuing through much of Tuesday (Oct. 21) before departing that afternoon.

Potential terrorists' targets also include an ornate royal barge spectacle the night of Oct. 20 on the winding Chao Phraya River which flows through the Thai capital.

Terrorist snipers perched atop tall buildings could shoot at leaders watching the procession of 2,000 oarsmen row 52 antique ceremonial barges decorated with engraved, encrusted statues of Hindu deities and mythical creatures, security officials warned.

"The ventilation system at the Royal Navy Institute has been improved on the recommendation of U.S. security officials to ensure it could not be used in a biological weapons attack" while leaders at the institute watch the glittery, narrow barges row past, the Bangkok Post reported.

Expensive hotels, embassies and other venues used by APEC delegates might also be targets for car bombs, officials said.

Keeping terrorists away is too difficult for the government and its security agencies, so Thailand has asked the public to help.

"The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and other agencies lack the manpower to do the job alone," NIA Deputy Director Sirichai Chotiratana told a seminar of government officials, hotel owners and ham radio operators.

"We have so far received no reports about any plan to attack Thailand during the APEC meeting," Mr. Sirichai assured them.

But the public should report any strangers doing suspicious things, he said.

"They [terrorists] act like tourists who love taking photos, but they want photos of buildings and roads only," NIA senior officer Nanthiwat Samart said at the seminar.

Terrorists "have few guests to their rooms, most of whom are Middle Eastern-looking. They prefer to stay in apartments or guest houses that are close to mosques, as they are pious Muslims," Mr. Nanthiwat said.

"I would regard motorcycle taxis and [automobile] taxis as our own police patrol cars," Police Commissioner Sant Sarutanond told more than 2,000 taxi drivers who responded to a police request for volunteers to help secure Bangkok during APEC.

"Most of the police cars are being used in many assignments for the APEC meetings. Motorcycle taxis and taxis could compensate for the shortfall," Gen. Sant said.

Amid the tension over terrorism, APEC will discuss how to advance economic globalization, ensure free trade and repair divisions which erupted at the recent Cancun meeting of the World Trade Organization.

China's growing economic influence across Southeast Asia will also be debated at a time when America's fixation with killing its enemies may have distracted Washington from other issues in this region.

"We all know that there were never any remaining WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] or terrorist links" in Iraq, said Thailand's leading political activist, Giles Ungpakorn.

"The U.S. government's aggressive military policy is a threat to world peace," Mr. Giles added in an open letter to people in Thailand.

Washington and London seized Baghdad only for its oil, and Bangkok sent more than 420 Thai troops to Iraq in support, he lamented.

"This is why we must protest against both George Bush and the Thai government on Sunday, October 19 at 10 a.m."

Other demonstrations planned to demand President Bush be arrested for destroying world peace, while activists said they would expose the ways globalization and free trade maimed developing nations.

When Mr. Thaksin met Mr. Bush in Washington in June, the White House announced "the United States is actively considering Thailand's designation as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA)," to mark their close military ties.

Thai media speculated President Bush may confirm Bangkok's MNNA status during APEC.

In August, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency benefited from Thailand's cooperation when they jointly captured Hambali -- also known as Riduan Isamuddin -- in the Thai city of Ayutthaya.

Hambali was a suspected leader of Indonesia's al Qaeda-inspired Jemaah Islamiyah militant organization.

Smaller APEC-related events overlap the main summit, including an Oct. 14-15 meeting of APEC's senior officials finalizing their leaders' agendas, an Oct. 17-18 conference for APEC'S ministry officials, an Oct. 19-21 APEC summit of selected corporations' chief executive officers and an Oct. 16-21 program for APEC's business advisory council.

**-ENDS-**

- 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/

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