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Thailand's Crackdown on High Profile Organized Crime Continues - 2003-05-22


Police in Thailand say two suspected arms dealers died during a raid aimed at ridding the country of illegal weapons.

Thai police say they were conducting a raid for illegal weapons, when a shootout ensued and two suspected arms dealers were killed.

The raid was part of a controversial anti-crime campaign launched by the government this week to rid the country of what it calls "dark influences."

Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirithai told journalists the campaign targets criminals ranging from unlicensed vendors to extortion gangs plaguing legitimate businessmen.

"What we are doing is basically enforcing the law," said Mr. Sathirithai. "Those people who are selling things on the pavement without permission and those street vendors that have to pay special fees to these people illegally, that type of thing has to stop."

The so-called dark influences campaign is also aiming straight for the top of the organized crime scale: bosses who engage in narcotics trafficking, people smuggling, loan sharking, and illegal gambling.

Powerful businessmen and politicians are not immune if they are believed to be engaging in corruption or influence peddling to obtain lucrative government contracts. Thai law enforcement has compiled a list of 800 such individuals who are to be arrested.

This is the second major anti-crime campaign in four months. The government just wrapped up a highly public and bloody 90-day war on drugs. More than 2,000 alleged drug dealers were killed.

Human rights groups complain a number of deaths were extrajudicial killings by police. But the government says most of the bloodshed occurred between drug dealers.

Rights activists are also worried the crackdown on dark influences could be abused. The head of the Forum Asia civic group, Somchai Homlaor, said officials could target critics or political rivals.

"I am afraid that after the war on the Mafia, they will start another war, maybe the war against the opposition, the war against the journalists, the war against NGO's [non-governmental organizations] and the circle of violence will continue," he explained.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra dismissed such concern.

He said the government will only take action against lawbreakers, like villagers who block highways or cause public disturbances.

The war on drugs has been popular with the Thai general public. But Thais note the government's latest campaign is targeting wealthy interests with longstanding connections to security forces and the political establishment. As a result, many say they will wait to see whether the campaign on dark influences succeeds.