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Political Tensions Rise in Thailand Over Bomb Plot, Elections


Political tensions in Thailand have heightened after police said they broke up a bomb plot aimed at Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Polls point to growing skepticism over the allegations - a sign of Mr. Thaksin's credibility problems in the country's urban center - Bangkok.

The news media and political analysts are openly doubtful about the reports of a bomb plot against Thailand's prime minister. And a Bangkok University poll shows only one in five people in the capital are convinced there was a plot.

On August 24 the police arrested an army lieutenant as he drove a car near Mr. Thaksin's residence. The police say the car was loaded with powerful explosives and detonators, meant to kill the prime minister.

Mr. Thaksin's critics say the arrest was only an attempt to win support ahead of the scheduled October 15 elections.

Jakrapob Penkair, Mr. Thaksin's deputy secretary, says the government is confident investigations will clear up any doubts and that the elections will go ahead.

"I believe that after the investigation has been conducted thoroughly and the results have been released to the public at large things would be put in perspective and all the culprits would be put to the judicial process so democracy in Thailand would march on," he said.

The doubts about the bomb plot are a sign of Mr. Thaksin's low credibility among the country's urban middle class. For more than a year, thousands of people have regularly joined demonstrations declaring that the prime minister has abused his office to grab power and enrich himself and his friends. His problems began a few years ago, when the government tried to oust the auditor general, Jaruvan Maintaka, who has wide public support.

Somphob Manarangsan, an economics professor at Chulalongkorn University, says Jaruvan took a leading role in uncovering graft.

"Her organization is one of the very crucial bodies for the financial management involved with high ranking government officials and politicians," said Somphob. "This kind of investigative body is very important for fighting or combating corruption in this country."

The government challenged her 2001 selection as auditor general in a series of court cases. In 2004, a court ruled that her appointment was unconstitutional, and she was ordered to leave the job.

Jaruvan refused to leave unless she was dismissed by King Bhumipol Adulyadej, who had endorsed her appointment.

The State Auditors Commission suspended Jaruvan in mid-2004 and locked her out of her office. But early this year, the commission reversed its stance after the king withheld his assent to the new nominee for the post.

She returned to her job in February.

"What did I do wrong? It's my right to come into the office - even though I was stopped by the audit commission at that time - not to give me any work. I feel I have been insulted," she said. "To lock the door - and the door of the auditor general of the whole nation - very stupid."

Jaruvan and many political observers in Thailand say the move to oust her was a result of her office's investigations of government officials.

Chris Baker, a political commentator in Bangkok and author of several books about Thai history and economics, says Jaruvan became a focus for those concerned about official abuses of power.

"She acted as lightening rod. Before questioning of her removal came up there was a lot of concern about corruption in this government but none had really crystallized," he said. "The removal of her seems such a blatant attempt to remove someone of genuine talent and commitment in this area of anti-corruption fighting."

Mr. Thaksin further angered many Thais in January, when his family sold its stake in the telecommunications company Shin Corporation, which they had controlled. The family earned nearly two billion dollars tax-free from the sale.

That prompted huge demonstrations in Bangkok. Thousands of people gathered to demand that Mr. Thaksin resign.

Instead, he called a snap election in April, which the opposition boycotted because they considered the short time period before the vote to be unfair. Courts have since ruled the election was improper and must be held again - next month. But that left the country in a state of uncertainty. With no sitting parliament, no legislation has been proposed or voted on, and no new policies have been implemented for months.

The auditor general's office is investigating whether the Thaksin family should have paid tax the Shin Corporation sale. It expects to issue a report by late September.

Despite the anger among middle-class urban voters, Mr. Thaksin remains popular, especially in rural areas and among the poor. His policies of cheap health care and easier credit access for farmers have won strong support.

His Thai Rak Thai Party and its allies are expected to win a majority of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives - although far fewer than the 374 they held before April.

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