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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 October, 2003, 13:33 GMT 14:33 UK
Thailand's mass Apec clean-up
By Kate McGeown
BBC News Online

In the post-11 September world, any country hosting a major international conference is likely to make security a top priority.

But Thailand's preparations for this year's Apec summit would take some beating.

A soldier looks at a disguised weapon
Security officials are being trained to find concealed weapons
Twenty-one international leaders, including US President George W Bush, will arrive in Bangkok this weekend on planes escorted by F-16 fighter jets.

If all goes according to plan, delegates will then glide down traffic-free streets - with not a vagrant or stray dog in sight - to stay in one of 16 luxury hotels.

Even litter bins have been hidden for the occasion.

Thailand is clearly taking no chances with its guests' comfort and security. But critics say the authorities have gone too far, describing some of the precautions as bizarre and even draconian.

"I sympathise with the government," Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the senate foreign affairs panel, told BBC News Online.

This is an opportunity to show Thailand to the world
Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow
"Security is of the utmost importance considering we live in such dangerous times... particularly with the arrest of (key terrorist suspect) Hambali in Thailand recently.

"But the government is completely overdoing things. They are trying to paint a harmonious picture of Thailand which is both unrealistic and has caused real hardship," he said.

Mice and men

Up to 20,000 soldiers and police are being deployed around Bangkok for the duration of the Apec meeting, with another 500 to serve as the delegates' personal bodyguards.

Anti-aircraft missiles will be stationed around the city's airport, and special runways have been equipped with an infra-red alarm system.

Even Bangkok's taxi drivers have been trained to act as police informers, and shown how to recognise concealed weapons.

They have also been told to wash and learn a bit of English in preparation for the summit.

A Thai homeless man eats his lunch while sitting on a road-side bench in Bangkok
Homeless people are a target of the clean-up operation
The authorities are even planning to test all the conference meals on mice before the food is served to delegates.

"We'll have a result within a minute," said Dr Somsong Rugpao, head of Bangkok's Medical Science Department.

"If it's safe, we'll tell the waiters to start serving," he said.

The government wants to reduce the number of people in the capital over the summit period, in an effort to minimise Bangkok's notorious traffic congestion.

At least four days of public holidays have been announced, in a move to persuade people to leave the capital.

Deputy Prime Minister Visnu Krua-ngam has even asked department stores not to hold sales during the summit.

Rights infringement?

Many of these new measures may sound odd, but human rights activists say they are no laughing matter, in fact they are an infringement of basic human rights.

One of the activists' main grievances is the mass deportation of about 900 Cambodian beggars.

Huge amounts of money are being spent on this - but it's all cosmetic
Social activist Giles Ungpakorn
Foreign ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow told BBC News Online that the Cambodians were being deported because they were illegal immigrants, not because of Apec.

But Senator Kraisak said: "This will affect the Cambodians' view of Thailand. I would be insulted if I was Cambodian."

Homeless people and prostitutes are also being removed from the streets as part of Bangkok's mass clean-up.

City Governor Samak Sundaravej riled opponents when he compared Bangkok's homeless to stray dogs. Both were a nuisance, he said.

The other main issue to incense campaigners is a government ban on demonstrations during the summit period.

Mr Sihasak said the authorities only wanted to avoid demonstrations which would reflect badly against Thailand or the Apec meeting itself, and that the move did not affect individual freedoms.

But social activist Giles Ungpakorn, who plans to take part in a mass rally against the US-led war in Iraq, said: "We're going ahead with our protest anyway on 19 October. It's our democratic right".

He added that it was "very ironic" that protests had been banned on Thailand's Democracy Day, which this year commemorates the 30th anniversary of student-led uprisings on 14 October 1973.

Mr Ungpakorn was also scathing about the long-term benefits of the Apec clean-up for ordinary Thais.

"Huge amounts of money are being spent on this - but it's all cosmetic. It will just be a big waste of money," he said.

But Mr Sihasak remained unrepentant.

"We want things to look good for the people coming here," he said. "This is an opportunity to show Thailand to the world."

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