By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK — Thailand's junta launched a crackdown today on organized crime, its latest effort to clean up the country and improve the image of the military government as it struggles to get a sluggish economy on track.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, ushered in a "clean up Thailand" campaign shortly after he, as army chief, took power from an elected government in a 2014 coup, promising to root out vice and corruption in government and society in general.
This time, he said, the junta was targeting mafia-style crime bosses styled as "influential figures."
"We want people to be able to live their lives normally away from violence and its instigators, including those who use weapons," said defense ministry spokesman Col. Kongcheep Tantrawanit.
"We will use laws that target influential figures and ask people to cooperate to help give the state information," he said, without giving details.
Prayuth has said he wants mafias eradicated in six months. His government has flagged the need to suppress crime, ban weapons and investigate some of Thailand's infamous nightlife venues.
The military sees itself as the champion of clean government, distinct from venal civilian politicians and their business cronies, although the military itself has long had extensive interests in various sectors of the economy.
Numerous governments, both civilian and military, have vowed to tackle crime and social ills though over the years, invariably with limited success.
The military's main rival over a decade of turbulent politics, former populist premier Thaksin Shinawatra, launched a tough war on drugs when he was prime minister in the early 2000s, in which several thousand people were killed.
Organized crime bosses often have shadowy political links and the children of some have entered politics.
Critics said the crackdown was another cosmetic, quick-fix campaign at a time when Southeast Asia's second-largest economy is in the doldrums, with exports and consumption sluggish.
"The junta sees a problem and tries to patch it up quickly," said a Thai social critic, who declined to be identified out of fear of repercussions.
"This is similar to the trafficking crackdown."
Police launched a crackdown on human trafficking syndicates in May following the discovery of mass graves along the border with Malaysia believed to contain the bodies of trafficking victims from Myanmar.
The clampdown triggered a regional migrant crisis because it prompted criminals to abandon boats crammed with thousands of migrants at sea, rather than risk landing on Thai shores.