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Thai Minister: Agency Abused State Power - 2002-03-19

Thailand's defense minister has resigned as chairman of a financial policing agency that launched an investigation of several dozen journalists in what is widely seen here as an attempt to intimidate the country's independent media. The defense minister said he took responsibility for the incident although a special committee has cleared political leaders in the case and is blaming executive directors.

Thai Defense Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh told reporters Tuesday he is stepping down as head of the Anti-Money Laundering Office.

General Chavalit said the office was found to have abused state power and he considers himself responsible. There was no official word on whether his resignation from the post has been accepted.

The resignation came despite a ruling by a special committee, which cleared the political leadership of responsibility in the case and blamed the office's director and a deputy. General Chavalit's position as defense minister is not affected.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ordered the inquiry following a public outcry over revelations that the anti-corruption office had launched an investigation into the assets of several dozen journalists, including the senior editors of the Nation Media group. The revelations emerged a few days after the Nation was ordered to stop providing program material to a government-owned radio station.

The order came after the Nation broadcast an interview with a prominent government critic. Civic groups and opposition politicians accused the prime minister of trying to muzzle the press. Prime Minister Thaksin denied any knowledge of the probe and said he was shocked by it.

The Anti-Money Laundering Office was formed as part of the fight against corruption and international crime. The special committee ruled the office launched the investigation without due cause, in violation of government regulations. The directors of the office face disciplinary action to be determined by a separate committee.

A professor at Bangkok's Asia Institute of Technology, Gothom Areeya, said the controversy is more than a dispute over freedom of the press because the Anti-Money Laundering Office must be an independent watchdog over all society.

"They [the people] are alarmed by the possibility of an organization which should be checking the rich and powerful. But instead this organization is checking others without enough reasons," he said.

The Thaksin government has been under pressure since it suspended an edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine last January saying an article offended Thailand's highly revered monarchy. It revoked the visas of two journalists working for the magazine but suspended the expulsion order after the magazine apologized.

Media critics say since the Thaksin government came to power one year ago, there have been more than a dozen attempts to pressure the news media to provide less critical coverage of his government.