Thai politics on Colombian path?

Drug lords, business rivals are among suspects in Saturday's apparent attack on prime minister.

A full-scale investigation is under way here to determine what or who was behind the apparent assassination attempt on Thailand's new prime minister.

Yesterday, Thaksin Shinawatra tried to play down the impact of the attack, which has raised questions over his country's carefully cultivated image as one of Asia's more stable nations.

"I don't want to say now whether the explosion was politically motivated," said Mr. Thaksin, whose populist Thai Rak Thai party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in January. "We still do not know who the intended target was. The target might not be the prime minister."

Investigators say specialized, military-grade plastic explosives caused the fire that destroyed a Thai Airways Boeing 737-400 on the tarmac at Bangkok airport Saturday afternoon. The plane blew up minutes before Thaksin and nearly 150 other passengers were due to board a flight north to the city of Chiang Mai. No one has yet admitted responsibility for the attack.

Reports say the device, which killed one cabin attendant and injured several others, had been placed under seats in the business class section of the aircraft reserved for Thaksin, his son, and several aides.

It's the willingness of the would-be assassins to kill a large number of innocent victims that has startled long-time observers here. "Thai politics has long been violent," says one Western diplomat. "But this is on a very different order of magnitude from traditional vendetta-style killings. This suggests Thaksin has some powerful enemies."

As a result, police and other agencies involved in the investigation are widening their hunt for the perpetrators to include any political or business interests who might have reason to feel threatened by Thaksin's arrival in power.

The list could be a long one. The prime minister's election campaign was built around several key themes. Among them were promises to crack down on Thailand's lucrative and flourishing illegal drug trade, and to clean up corruption within government agencies.

According to the US State Department, while Thailand has been effective in controlling domestic production, it is still a major transhipment point for drugs from Burma. The push against the drug warlords who smuggle opium and amphetamines across the border from Burma and Laos has already yielded results. Late last month, Thai police arrested a man alleged to be the chief financier of an ethnic force known as the United Wa State Army, a group heavily involved in the manufacture of amphetamines. Millions of baht in drug money have also been seized.

Interestingly, Thaksin's own brother-in-law, Police Lt. Gen. Priawpan Damapong, is a key figure in the anti-narcotics campaign under way on the border. The prime minister is due to convene a meeting of security chiefs next week in the northern town of Chiang Rai to discuss ways of tackling what trade ministers see as a threat to Thailand's national security.

That perception has been reinforced by a series of clashes on the border last month involving Thai and Burmese troops. The military government in Rangoon accuses Thailand of giving support to another armed ethnic group, the Shan, which is involved in a long struggle for autonomy. Thailand in turn accuses Burmese military figures of direct involvement in the drugs business - a charge supported by the United States and other Western entities.

If Thaksin has angered the drug barons, his other policies would appear to threaten important business interests in Thailand itself. In a bid to free up the money he needs to help stimulate Thailand's languishing economy, the prime minister is reevaluating a range of ambitious and costly infrastructure schemes embarked on by previous administrations. These include plans to build a new international airport outside Bangkok. The project is massively over-budget and has been mired in allegations of shady land and other deals involving prominent businessmen and figures in the military.

Major road and other projects in which significant vested interests are at stake could also be axed as the government tries to finance expensive election pledges to raise funds for rural communities and to reduce the cost of hospital treatment to nominal levels - promises that helped secure Thaksin his impressive victory at the polls.

At another level, the inquiry into the bomb blast is sure to focus on Thaksin's own entourage. He himself has referred to the possible involvement of "insiders," a reference to the few members of his staff who knew of a last-minute change of travel plans. Originally, the prime minister was supposed to fly to Chiang Mai on Sunday, and only brought forward his travel schedule to Saturday at the last moment.

Security around the prime minister has been significantly tightened. From now on, he will travel with armed bodyguards and use an armor-plated limousine. Officials say a Royal Thai Air Force plane will be put at his disposal for Thaksin's travels outside Bangkok.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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