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Drug Charges Cloud Thailand Succession

New premier's alleged heroin links could strain US ties

DRUG-TRAFFICKING allegations cloud the future of the politician tapped as Thailand's next prime minister.

Political veteran Narong Wongwan was chosen Wednesday to head a five-party, pro-military coalition in forming the country's first elected government since a bloodless coup 13 months ago.

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The selection, however, was snagged when the United States State Department confirmed that Mr. Narong had been denied a visa in July 1991 because US officials believed he had been involved in drug trafficking from his extensive business base in the so-called Golden Triangle.

His business holdings in tobacco, logging, and holiday resorts are centered in Southeast Asia's major opium and heroin production areas where Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet.

Despite angry denials by coalition politicians, fears grew that the nomination could draw retribution from the US and other major trading partners. Thai-US relations already are strained by a deepening trade dispute over patent and intellectual property rights in Thailand.

The stock market in Bangkok dipped sharply yesterday following the announcement, a reaction that could force the country's top politicians and generals to rethink their choice, a business consultant says. "Thailand could pay a big price in international economic relations," he adds.

The choice of Narong would be "shameful" if evidence supported the allegations, said Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, chairman of the ruling Thai junta, which insists on the right to name the prime minister after the inconclusive poll.

The selection of Narong, leader of the military-backed Sammakhi Tham Party and the election's big winner, was a compromise aimed at quieting controversy over the prime minister.

Following Sunday's election, in which the Sammakhi Tham won 79 of 360 seats, armed forces chief Suchinda Krapayoon appeared as the front-runner for the top civilian job. General Suchinda masterminded last year's coup against the elected government of former Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhaven, which was accused of widespread corruption. But the military leader faced opposition because he is not an elected leader.

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Last year, in an overnight rehabilitation common to Thai politics, Narong was among the Chatichai administration officials investigated for possessing "unusual wealth," although the charges were later dropped. Later, he joined the Samakkhi Tham, a new party widely seen as a vehicle created by the military.

The five-party alliance would command a narrow majority of 195 seats in the lower house of the Parliament.

Narong and other coalition politicians contend that the drug allegations are unsubstantiated and drummed up by their opposition. Western officials and Chavalit Yodmani, Thailand's respected top drug enforcement official, say there is no concrete evidence or indictment against Narong. "But it's a widely known secret," one Western official says.

Some Western diplomats question whether the military, in allowing Narong's name to be nominated, is merely biding time until the post-election controversy dies away.

Under the new Constititution revised last year by the military, members of the upper house or senators are hand-picked by the military. Almost half the new Senate membership unveiled on election day are active military officers.

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