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Controversy Surrounds Thailand's Anti-Terrorism Bill - 2003-06-25

As terrorism raises its head around the world, many governments are seeking new powers to counter the threat. But giving a government additional power often raises concerns about possible abuse. One government's bid for a tough new anti-terrorism law has run into criticism.

Thailand's government has always been more focused on tourism than terrorism. Even after last October's horrific bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra insisted there were no terrorist networks operating in Thailand.

But several recent arrests of suspected terrorists in Thailand - along with, diplomatic sources say, a nudge from the U.S. government - have prompted an abrupt turnabout by the Thaksin government. Now it is seeking to push an anti-terrorism bill through parliament.

But the bill has raised alarms among human rights groups. They said the law, if passed, could be used as a political tool. Somchai Homlaor of the human rights group Forum Asia says the government could use the proposed law's broad language to punish political opponents. "So what we [are] afraid is that this law if being enacted will become the tool of the government to suppress the civil society and non-governmental organizations who have a difference of opinion from the government," Mr. Homlaor said. And in a country that has seen its share of military dictatorships over the years, there is also fear the armed forces will abuse new anti-terrorism powers.

Proponents of the bill insist that current laws are not sufficient to deal with the terrorist threat. Justice Minister Pongthep Thepkanjana said that while suspects can be tried for outright crimes, current laws cannot prosecute supporters of terrorist groups.

But the proposed law's definition of terrorism is very wide. In the English translation, the measure defines terrorism as any act that causes public fear or intimidation of the Thai government, any foreign government, or an international organization.

Panitan Widyagorn, a security expert at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, agrees in principle with the need for anti-terrorism legislation. But he said the language should be tightened.

"It might be misused. It might be abused. You know, that's why the public is urging the government to wait and to debate carefully and to come up with new and more specific definitions and terms and conditions," Mr. Panitan said.

The justice minister defends the bill's language, but adds that he expects the definitions to be tightened as the bill is debated within the Cabinet.

"I think our provision with respect to terrorist acts is quite clear. But definitely when this bill is submitted to the Cabinet, we can make it more clear," Mr. Pongthep said.

He said the government will not move with undue haste, and that he does not expect passage of the legislation until the end of this year or the beginning of the next.