Junta gets tough on crime bosses to clean up Thailand

But critics say crackdown targeting 'influential figures' is purely cosmetic

BANGKOK • Thailand's junta yesterday launched a crackdown on organised crime, its latest effort to clean up the country and improve the image of the military government as it struggles to get a sluggish economy on track.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha ushered in a "clean up Thailand" campaign shortly after he, as army chief, took power from an elected government in last year's coup, promising to root out vice and corruption in government and society in general.

This time, he said, the junta was targeting mafia-style crime bosses known as "influential figures".

"We want people to be able to live their lives normally away from violence and its instigators, including those who use weapons," said defence ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantrawanit. "We will use laws that target influential figures and ask people to cooperate to help give the state information," he said, without giving details.

General Prayut has said he wants mafias eradicated in six months. His government has flagged the need to suppress crime, ban weapons and investigate some of Thailand's infamous nightlife venues.

The military sees itself as the champion of clean government, distinct from venal civilian politicians and their business cronies, although the military itself has long had extensive interests in various sectors of the economy.

Critics said the crackdown was another cosmetic, quick-fix campaign at a time when South-east Asia's second-largest economy is in the doldrums, with exports and consumption sluggish.

Yesterday, Gen Prayut also defended his government's decision to roll out significant farming subsidies, a policy the generals and their allies excoriated when the civilians they toppled were in power.

The kingdom's military rulers have approved at least US$1.3 billion (S$1.8 billion) in rural subsidies in recent days, primarily to help prop up the country's influential, but struggling, rice and rubber industries.

"I admit that we can't give up on populist schemes but we have to see how to make them better, more thorough and fairer," Gen Prayut told reporters yesterday. "(Our) policies will help the country better than the populist policy of (the previous government)."

Last year, he ousted the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra after months of street protests, which were in part fuelled by her administration's popular but economically disastrous rice subsidy scheme.

The subsidy scheme, which bought rice at an above-market price, was enormously popular among farmers but very expensive, leaving Thailand with vast piles of unsold stock.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2015, with the headline 'Junta gets tough on crime bosses to clean up Thailand'. Print Edition | Subscribe