FOR decades, they have been getting away with murder. Also robbery, extortion, rape, kidnap, loan sharking, illegal lottery, gun running, drug dealing, human smuggling – the list goes on.
They blatantly run a wide range of nefarious businesses, using connections with politicians and senior civil servants to accumulate wealth.
With top-level police and military officers to protect them or cover up illegal activities, life has been good for Thailand’s underworld dons.
But not for too long, if Thaksin Shinawatra's new war goes on as planned. The Thai Prime Minister drew the battles lines against the godfathers of crime on Thursday, swearing to root out the powers of all the “dark forces” and “influential people” by Dec 2.
It may turn out to be his most formidable mission yet since taking office after a landslide win two years ago. Persistent talk of assassination attempts echoes this reality.
Police have already identified a leading politically connected tycoon as the mastermind planning a hit on Thaksin. As of Friday, police were still preparing his arrest warrant.
The prominent businessman is not the only one who wants to kill the prime minister. Defence Minister Thamarak Isarangura has said that drug lords along the Thai-Myanmar border had reportedly offered 80 million baht (about RM8mil) to hired guns to take on the job.
“The drug kingpins and mafia bosses want to kill the prime minister because of his all-out war against drugs and the new crackdown on organised crime,” he said.
Thaksin has remained unperturbed by the death threats but security around him has been beefed up.
The blitz on organised crime is being conducted in the same way as the war against drugs. A hotline and a P.O. Box have been made available for public tip-offs as the lists of suspects are being drawn up. A final list of about 800 people would be submitted to a panel headed by Deputy Prime Minister Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.
If the recently ended war against drugs is a yardstick, one can expect more blood and gore over the next few days.
More than 2,300 people were killed during the three-month crackdown on drug dealers. Human rights groups claim that most were “summary executions” based on lists of suspects, a charge that has brought the Thai government under UN scrutiny and a diplomatic rebuke from the US, its previously close ally.
Human rights groups, NGOs and the media have called for more transparency in the identification of “influential people,” warning that innocent people could be killed just like during the crackdown on drugs.
The opposition Democrat Party has accused Thaksin of only wanting to score political points.
Police Chief Gen Sant Sarutanond generated another round of criticism for the government when he suggested that those with persuasive powers over the masses were also “potential enemies” of the state and should be subject to clampdowns.
The panel headed by Gen Chavalit, however, has only come out with 15 classifications of miscreants targeted under the campaign.
They include those involved in drug dealing, systematic bid-rigging for government contracts, those extorting protection money from motorcycle taxis and other operators of commercial vehicles without permits, civil servants abusing their powers, smugglers, gambling den operators, those behind human trafficking and prostitution rings, loan sharks, gun runners and those destroying the natural environment or encroaching into government land.
When did Thaksin decide that enough was enough with the mafia?
A blatant show of power in the heart of Bangkok’s nightlife hub by one underworld figure four months ago must have been the straw that broke the camel's back.
In the early hours of Jan 27, about 600 men raided Sukhumvit Square, a popular tourist spot at the corner of Soi 10. Forcing tenants out, they smashed and razed the open-air bars, shops and stalls before a wrecking crew came in, flattening the place within two hours.
The tenants had been involved in a four-year dispute with a company that had leased the land. The owner of the land had apparently withdrawn the lease and given it to another company but the tenants refused to move.
Investigations showed that soldiers and policemen were involved in the raid. Sixteen military officers were suspended and two officers, a lieutenant-colonel and a major, were identified as the men who planned it. They have been arrested but the “boss” who paid them to do it remains anonymous and free.
“The demolition team received about 20 million baht for the barbaric act. These people are both stupid and greedy,” said Major-Gen Trairong Intaratat, a security adviser to Thaksin, who led the investigations.
Most Thais know that getting rid of organised crime bosses and people of influence would not be easy but are looking forward to the exposure of big-time crooks.
A 50-year-old businessman, who wished to be identified only by his nickname of Kow, said: “It is about time that something is done about these people. It is necessary to remove them in order to bring about a better country. The government should not give up no matter how difficult it is. It must keep going after them.”
His friend, a 55-year-old non-citizen who has lived in Thailand for about 30 years, agreed wholeheartedly.
“Thaksin has guts. No previous government has dared to do this. Former governments were not sincere when it came to promises to wipe out crime. That is the reason why we are having this mess.”