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Thailand's 'Mr. Clean' Aims to Sweep Out Sleaze

Government: Interior minister's one-man campaign to restore traditional values gets cheers and jeers. His success is in doubt.

July 07, 2002|DENIS D. GRAY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BANGKOK, Thailand — For Interior Minister Purachai Piumsombun, a night on the town often means bursting into a bar or disco to round up young drunks, conduct urine tests on suspected drug users and punish corrupt cops for failing to enforce the law.

The raids are part of Purachai's "new social order," virtually a one-man campaign to restore traditional Thai values and rein in a huge sex-and-drugs empire controlled by the powerful and abetted by corrupt authorities.

In a society known for bending the rules, the former policeman and devout Buddhist is attempting to limit entertainment areas and close down spots that stay open past 2 a.m. or admit those younger than 20.

Launched last year, the minister's efforts are drawing cheers from parents who see their children drawn into the often dangerous night scene. But critics say his ideas smack of social engineering and authoritarianism.

"I think he's on the right road in helping Thailand. He's an honest man, a man of principle. Present-day Thailand needs such a man to remedy its sickness," says a veteran human rights lawyer who is also a senator, Thongbai Thongbao. "But I am not sure he will succeed. He stands alone."

Succeed or fail, Purachai stands out in bold relief on Thailand's political scene. The 1 1/2-year-old government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is widely criticized for scandals, cronyism and putting private business interests ahead of national ones.

A telecom tycoon, Thaksin himself narrowly escaped ouster from politics on charges that he knowingly concealed his assets while serving in a previous government.

Commentators point out that Purachai, who lives modestly and has no known business interests, named his three children after Buddhist precepts while the names of Thaksin's three children are derived from the Thai word for gold.

But the two have been friends since their days at the Police Cadet Academy, and Purachai served as secretary-general of Thaksin's Thais Love Thais party until early this year.

Purachai's intense, straightforward, stick-by-the-law approach rubs many people the wrong way, making the political future of Thailand's "Mr. Clean" far from secure.

"I am my own man--I have my independence, my dignity and my pride. I will never accept to be anybody's puppet," Purachai told a Thai news magazine.

The 51-year-old Purachai entered politics only in the mid-1990s, after a short career in the police and 15 years as a teacher and president of the National Institute of Development Administration.

His academic work and studies--he holds a doctorate in criminology from Florida State University--clearly form the basis of his policies as interior minister. These include an emphasis on the family and "Crime Control Through Environmental Design," the title of one of his books.

"The family is the best instrument to prevent crime and instill ethics and moral values in children," he has said.

Thus Purachai's "new social order," or at least the most publicized aspect of it, has focused on youth. And what Purachai sees firsthand clearly shocks him.

A generation ago, Thai children invariably grew up under the vigilant eyes of parents and elders. Courting couples hardly dared to hold hands in public.

But a blitz of Western ways and new socioeconomic forces has dramatically changed all that.

Methamphetamine and other drugs, along with prostitution, have seeped into schools and campuses.

The children of both the Bangkok elite and their poorer upcountry cousins frequent a galaxy of night spots where almost everything is for sale.

Purachai's quest to reverse the trend has put him high on public opinion polls and he has received support from the much-revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

But some critics say he should make more use of his powerful ministry position to go after "hard targets"--a police force that needs thorough reform; laws that are archaic; and corrupt politicians, crooked business executives and drug kingpins.

Others say he's not in a position to do that.

"What can he do?" asks Thongbai, the lawyer and senator. "He has popular support, but nobody in the government is on his side."

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