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Thailand's Police Chief Fired, as Government Popularity Slips

Thai prime minister Surayud Chulanont has fired the Thai police chief after he failed to make progress in the investigation of bomb attacks in the capital Bangkok. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, new polls show declining support for the military-backed government.

The dismissal of Thai Police Chief General Kowit Wattana follows heavy criticism of investigations into the bombings in Bangkok on New Year's Eve that left three people dead and dozens wounded.

Last month, police arrested 19 people, but they were all later released without charge. A grenade attack then hit a newspaper office and a hotel, raising further doubts of the police's ability to secure the capital.

Kowit was police chief to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a September coup.

Chulalongkorn University Economics Professor Somphob Manarangsan believes the dismissal raises hopes of reform.

"The police department has been highly criticized by the public even before the coup d'etat. There is going to be some change in the better direction, it will be an opportunity for the restructuring and reform," he said.

A Thai government spokesman said Police General Seriphisut Temiyawej is the acting police chief. He has a clean reputation. As crime suppression chief in the 1990's, he faced several death threats due to his investigations of corruption. Somphob believes Seriphisut is a good choice.

"Police General Seriphisut is quite a liberal and progressive person when we learn from his past experience," he said. "I think he will act to take some action to make some changes to this very important department."

Public opinion polls indicate the military government appears to be losing public support.

Monthly opinion surveys by Bangkok's Assumption University show that Prime Minister Surayud's popularity has fallen from 71 percent in November, to 48 percent in January. At the same time, deposed prime minister Thaksin gained support, rising from 16 percent to 22 percent, although a majority of respondents believe he should stay out of politics.

The survey indicates Thais fear the current government is too busy grappling with abuses of power by the previous government, and not focusing enough on improving farmers' incomes, and ensuring public safety.