BANGKOK – Paphatya Poonpratin – a 25-year-old office worker in Bangkok – felt pleased about the evening news on television last week.
One report showed military officers raiding an illegal gambling den as the culprits frantically tried to escape. In another segment, soldiers rounded up and handcuffed the organisers of a cock-fighting ring.
“I also hope the new military government will strictly crack down on other illegal activities,” said Paphatya, a supporter of Thailand’s recent military coup.
Less than two months after seizing power, the military government has promised an unprecedented war on vice, as supporters and an increasingly restricted media laud the return of law and order. Meanwhile, critics complain of heavy-handed tactics targeting political opponents.
Last month, a crackdown on the country’s estimated two to three million undocumented foreigners working in Thailand led to the largest mass migration in Southeast Asia since the Indochina wars in the 1970s.
The Cambodian government said 250,000 people fled across the border in just 18 days, as rights groups and senior officials in Phnom Penh complained of abuses by Thai soldiers.
The military government has hauled in domestic fishing bosses for a stern warning: Their boats will be taken away and nationalised unless they end their alleged slave-like treatment of illegally hired foreign workers.
Threats by the military have finally prompted the fishing industry to take action, said Poj Aramwattananont, co-owner of Sea Value Group, one of Thailand’s biggest fish producers. “We’ve listened to the army’s instructions, and we can solve this problem quite soon,” he said.
Government pressure has coincided with the US decision to downgrade Thailand to its lowest ranking on human trafficking in an annual assessment last month, a decision that “disappointed” the country, said Songsak Saicheua, the Thai foreign ministry’s head of US and Pacific affairs.
“There is no illegal industry in Thailand,” he claimed in an email.
But according to Kan Yuenyong, director of Bangkok-based think-tank Siam Intelligence Unit, it is estimated that industries operating on the fringes of the law represent as much as 50 percent of the country’s overall economy.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of the military government, has repeatedly cited problems with Thailand’s overseas image as a key reason behind the military’s recent campaign against vice. “We have to change this perception,” he said last month in one of his weekly televised speeches following the coup against former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
In June, police arrested 50 “ladyboy” sex workers accused of stealing from clients and passers-by in Pattaya, a seaside resort popular with foreigners, two hours by road from Bangkok.
Also last month, police arrested more than 100 members of an alleged taxi mafia gang, including one mayor and four other politicians on the island of Phuket. The crackdown on unlicensed taxi rackets was later extended to taxi cabs at the capital’s main airport, Suvarnabhumi, and motorbikes that shuttle paying passengers around Bangkok’s back streets.
Although the clean-up looks like an attempt to regulate activity on the fringes of the law, the military government’s plans to contain Bangkok’s motorbike taxis is also “highly political”, said Claudio Sopranzetti, an Oxford University research fellow who studies the industry in the Thai capital.
These taxis have a history of supporting the pro-Shinawatra “Red Shirts”, dating back to the military crackdown in April and May 2010, during the pitched street battles that left more than 90 people dead in Bangkok . At the time, motorbike taxi drivers rallied in support of the Red Shirts, acted as lookouts reporting soldier movements and helped Shinawatra supporters disappear down back alleys.
According to Sopranzetti, an estimated 80 percent of Bangkok’s 200,000 motorbike taxi drivers support deposed prime minister Yingluck and her self-exiled brother, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra. “They are people that know the streets better than anyone. In situations of political unrest, they can be important,” he added.
‘Cripple and De-Thaksinise’
Whereas the pro-Shinawatra police largely controlled and operated these taxi cartels before the coup, the military, asserting its authority, has since driven them out. This campaign has been replicated across the country, said Paul Chambers, a researcher on Thailand’s military and police at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.
“One major objective of the 2014 coup is to cripple and de-Thaksinise Thailand’s police,” he said.
In a recent effort to round up illegal weapons, the military government has also targeted people it sees as ringleaders of pro-Shinawatra groups – populists whom the country’s traditional elite, including the army, view as a threat to Thailand’s establishment.
On June 29, the military-led government paraded before the media in Bangkok, more than 2,800 guns, 50,000 rounds of ammunition, nine rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 330 hand grenades, and 134 items of explosive material seized last month as part of a much-publicised crackdown on “war weapons”.
The military government also announced that witness testimony linked illegal arms to Jakrapob Penkair, a self-exiled former aide of Thaksin and co-founder of the main Red Shirt group formed in opposition to the 2006 coup in Thailand.
Earlier the same week, Jakrapob co-founded a new anti-military group, the first to actively oppose the current military takeover, the Organisation of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy (FT-HD). The weapons charge against him was “a fabrication”, the FT-HD said in a statement.
Charupong Ruangsuwan, former head of the ousted pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party and leader of this new organisation, told Al Jazeera that weapons allegations were an attempt by the military to tarnish the FT-HD as an illegal armed group in the eyes of the rest of the world.
“They have accused Jakrapob without even trying to come up with any kind of credible evidence,” he wrote in an email from an unknown location overseas.
Controlling ‘Grey Industries’
The military government’s ongoing crackdown on illegal activity achieves a number of political goals, said Kan from the Siam Intelligence Unit. The wide-reaching campaign offers the country’s new rulers credibility after the coup, and allows the army to go after long-standing enemies while bringing unruly sectors of society under state control.
“This military government thinks the underground economy is a source of political problems. Their goal is to wipe out and control grey industries,” said Kan.
So far, the crackdown on vice appears to be popular among Thais, albeit in a media environment restricted by new military controls and government threats against editors. A survey conducted earlier this month by Suan Dusit Poll found 93.5 percent of respondents said they enjoyed a better home life since the military takeover, because they no longer worry about the safety of their family.
But not everyone is convinced such strong support for the new government will last.
Chuwit Kamolvisit, a former massage parlour tycoon who ran an anti-corruption movement until the coup effectively banned party politics, said people will soon lose faith in the military government when they see the abuses that accompany its policies.
“This is the honeymoon period,” he said. “Every government has one.” – Steve Finch