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BANGKOK – Thailand's new ruling junta doesn't like the way the country is portrayed in the movies as a haven for drugs, thugs, lawlessness and ladies of the night.
It's not that the movies are entirely wrong. But the junta chief says Thailand should be ashamed of its image, and has embarked on a cleanup campaign.
Since staging a coup on May 22, the military has led a crackdown on crime as part of what army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha describes as a morality cleansing. Before democracy can be restored, he says, corruption and lawlessness have to stop.
Prayuth has repeatedly talked about returning the Buddhist country to a place of moral standing where people respect the law — including the politicians, police and other authorities who readily take payments to ignore crime. Kicking out corrupt politicians was part of Prayuth's justification for overthrowing an elected government and suspending a range of democratic freedoms.
"Foreign tourists should not have a perception that they can come to Thailand to commit illegal activities as often portrayed in the movies," he said in one of his weekly televised speeches. "I am ashamed. Do you not feel the same when this is portrayed in foreign films?"
"We have to change this perception."
Whether or not the crackdown has lasting effects, it has shined a light on Thailand's underworld and highlighted just how far-reaching lawlessness here really is.
AIRPORT TAXI MAFIA
The junta this week vowed to banish mafia-style gangs that control the taxis at Bangkok's main international airport. In news to many travelers who had no clue about the racket, the junta announced that extortion gangs manage the taxi queues at Suvarnabhumi International Airport and screen passengers for drivers who prefer traveling longer distances. Maj. Gen. Nirandon Samutsakhon, who heads a new task force to eliminate the gangs, told The Bangkok Post that "men in uniform" were allegedly implicated. He vowed results within a month, including a new computerized registration system that will require drivers to sign in and accept all passengers regardless of their destination. Nirandon said the overhaul was a priority because airport taxis are the "front door to the tourism industry" and the junta wants to end frequent problems of passengers being denied rides, overcharged or left stranded. A similar crackdown is underway in the resort island of Phuket, where hundreds of people including drivers and senior local officials have been arrested.
So far, there's no sign of targeting straight-forward prostitution and the many go-go bars that bring in heaps of cash for Thailand's tourist towns. But, police working with the navy in the seaside town of Pattaya have turned to the longstanding problem of criminal ladyboys, as transvestites are known in Thailand. On Thursday alone, police rounded up 50 ladyboys that offer sexual services to foreigners and then rob them, said Pattaya police Lt. Col. Phairot Petchploy. "They pretend to be embracing or touching the foreign tourists and then steal their phones or wallets," he said. To address the problem, he said, police are sending plainclothes officers out cruising with tourists to bait and catch the criminals.
BAD MONKS HOTLINE
The National Office of Buddhism set up a 24-hour hotline Friday to accept complaints about misbehaving monks. The idea for the hotline emerged after Prayuth instructed the office to curb bad behavior among monks and protect the image of Buddhism in the predominantly Buddhist country of 67 million people. The move follows a number of high-profile scandals in recent years, including a case last month of five defrocked abbots charged with sexually abusing boys. Last year, a disgraced monk was fired after a video on YouTube went viral showing him in aviator sunglasses on a private jet ride with a Louis Vuitton carry-on. An investigation found the monk, who fled the country and was never arrested, had amassed millions of dollars in assets by deceiving people into giving him donations. He was also accused of fathering a child by an underage girl a decade earlier. The National Office of Buddhism says it plans to propose draft legislation that would codify the punishments for wayward monks.
Since the coup, the army has publicized the discovery of arms caches to justify its intervention. Last week, the junta chief said soldiers had seized 88 war weapons, more than 1,200 illegal guns, more than 7,000 bullets and 300 grenades and explosives.
Not all were connected to politics. Prayuth said some of the weapons belonged to illegal businesses.
The army's main reason for staging the coup was to restore order after seven months of protests that triggered sporadic violence left at least 28 people dead. More than 800 people were wounded in grenade attacks, gunfights and drive-by shootings.
The National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta refers to itself, is ordering prisons to get tough on drug dealers. The military has compiled a list of inmates suspected of peddling drugs via phone from inside prisons, assistant army chief Gen. Paibul Khumchaya told the Bangkok Post. The army has given prisons a one-month deadline to stop traffickers from operating on the inside. It has also asked banks to monitor suspicious accounts held by inmates suspected of laundering money acquired from drugs and illegal gambling.
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.