Thai Politics on Colombian Path? ; Drug Lords, Business Rivals Are among Suspects in Saturday's Apparent Attack on Prime Minister

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A full-scale investigation is under way here to determine what or who was behind the apparent assassination attempt on Thailand's new prime minister.

Yesterday, Thaksin Shinawatra tried to play down the impact of the attack, which has raised questions over his country's carefully cultivated image as one of Asia's more stable nations.

"I don't want to say now whether the explosion was politically motivated," said Mr. Thaksin, whose populist Thai Rak Thai party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in January. "We still do not know who the intended target was. The target might not be the prime minister."

Investigators say specialized, military-grade plastic explosives caused the fire that destroyed a Thai Airways Boeing 737-400 on the tarmac at Bangkok airport Saturday afternoon. The plane blew up minutes before Thaksin and nearly 150 other passengers were due to board a flight north to the city of Chiang Mai. No one has yet admitted responsibility for the attack.

Reports say the device, which killed one cabin attendant and injured several others, had been placed under seats in the business class section of the aircraft reserved for Thaksin, his son, and several aides.

It's the willingness of the would-be assassins to kill a large number of innocent victims that has startled long-time observers here. "Thai politics has long been violent," says one Western diplomat. "But this is on a very different order of magnitude from traditional vendetta-style killings. This suggests Thaksin has some powerful enemies."

As a result, police and other agencies involved in the investigation are widening their hunt for the perpetrators to include any political or business interests who might have reason to feel threatened by Thaksin's arrival in power.

The list could be a long one. The prime minister's election campaign was built around several key themes. Among them were promises to crack down on Thailand's lucrative and flourishing illegal drug trade, and to clean up corruption within government agencies.

According to the US State Department, while Thailand has been effective in controlling domestic production, it is still a major transhipment point for drugs from Burma. The push against the drug warlords who smuggle opium and amphetamines across the border from Burma and Laos has already yielded results. Late last month, Thai police arrested a man alleged to be the chief financier of an ethnic force known as the United Wa State Army, a group heavily involved in the manufacture of amphetamines. …