Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bangkok bombings: New trend emerging?

Synopsis: The bomb blasts in Bangkok have resurrected more fears of widespread violence erupting the city.

What do these blasts signify for the political climate of the Kingdom?


While Thai authorities scramble to get to the bottom of this week’s twin bomb blasts in the heart of Bangkok, they reflect a trend emerging from the series of violent attacks in Thailand the past 18 months. A total of over 20 bomb explosions were reported between March 2014 and August 2015, including before, during and after the 2014 coup. On 17 February 2015, terrorists exploded a bomb on a Thai registered ship in Malaysian waters; another bomb exploded in Narathiwat Province on 20 February; and, a car bomb exploded on the tourist island of Koh Samui in April.

The series of bomb explosions indicate similarities of tactics, target choices as well as bomb components. All the bombs were home-made and weighed no more than four kilograms. All the perpetrators escaped. And no one came forward to claim responsibility. Those explosions were probably merely training for the latest Bangkok blasts. Clearly, a new set of bombers is developing even as we witness a fresh round of political violence in the Kingdom.

Possible sources

Several analysts and journalists believe that the blasts at the Erawan Shrine and Saphan Taksin point towards the Red Shirts and relatively deprived supporters as the probable perpetrators.

Red Shirts: There are disgruntled and angry Red Shirt supporters who are followers of Yingluck Shinawatra. She was unceremoniously removed from power on May 22, 2014 after becoming Thailand’s first woman prime minister. There continues to be legal and political acrimony over the motivations of the military coup that evicted her.

Despite the ensuing protests, peace and stability were maintained by the Chan-o-Cha regime, but not for very long. The problems arose again when coup leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha appointed himself prime minister. He angered the polity when he postponed the general elections three times from 2015 to the following year and now says “no hurry till 2017”. It is not clear how long the polity will tolerate Chan-o-Cha.

Despite being known for abject poverty in their northeast provincial stronghold, the Red Shirts have always fervently viewed the Shinawatras as benevolent, populist leaders who they treat with great respect. This has led to Palace sources reminding all and sundry of the need to preserve reverence for the monarchy and no one else.

Relative Deprivation: Most Thai people make a meagre living but wealthy Thais are among the wealthiest people in the world. Relative deprivation in the Kingdom is a grave source of unhappiness especially in the rural northeastern provinces. Some estimate that over 83% or about 53 million people live on less than 300 baht a day. This makes a sufficient hotbed for political protests as the gap between the richest rich and poorest poor widens at an increasing rate.

Thaksin Shinawatra: Latest intelligence reports suggest that local police are tracking individuals who are believed to have come from the northeast region of the Kingdom. The northeast is considered the stronghold of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of Yingluck. Some observers believe that Thaksin might be trying to make things difficult for Chan-o-cha who represents the traditional elite as he stews in self-exile.

Royal Factor: Crown Prince, Future King Rama X

Thaksin is known to be close to Crown Prince Maha Vajiralalongkorn. While both men have not appeared “officially” in public events together for over a decade, the eventual demise of the beloved King Bhumipol Adulyadej might see a union of Thaksin and the Crown Prince.

The 63- year-old Crown Prince remains in waiting for his father who has been on the throne for 69 years. Vajiralalongkorn recently led over 300,000 cyclists for a 43 km bike ride in honour of his mother the Queen. The prime minister who joined them also said that that the country was still torn apart by the 2014 coup and “divided”. This was an allusion to the Red Shirt-Yellow Shirt divide that almost brought the Kingdom to its knees.

Ironically, the day after the prime minister’s comments, the first bomb exploded at the four-faced Buddha shrine at Erawan killing at least 22 people and injuring over 123 locals and foreigners. Then a second bomb was detonated about nine BTS train stations away along the Chao Phraya. No one was injured by the bomb thrown into the Chao Phraya – again popular as an embarkation point for tourists taking river tours as well as locals commuting to and from work.

Watermelon Soldiers

Another probable source might be what I refer to as the “watermelon soldiers”. These are soldiers who are career officers and other ranks as well as national servicemen with political sympathies for the Reds. They are watermelon soldiers because they wear green uniforms but have Red political inclinations inside. One of the most famous Red Shirt leaders was Seh Daeng, who was assassinated by a military sniper. A renegade senior commander, he was also a strong supporter of Prime Minister Thaksin and a fearless military leader in the fight against the Communists in the 1970s. Formally known as Khattiya Sawasdipol, he was perceived by the commanding general of the time, Anupong Paochinda, as a threat. Anupong subsequently humiliated Seh Daeng by appointing him as a military aerobics instructor.

Hundreds of Red Shirts have lost their lives in a decade of bombing Bangkok and not a single family has forgotten a son or daughter who died. Many remain imprisoned by the military regime. The treatment of the Red Shirts, the levels of poverty and environmental factors such as famine, typhoons and floods have contributed to a deteriorating political climate as many wonder what is going to happen next. However there is no cause yet to suspect foreign involvement in the current spate of bombings.

Antonio L. Rappa is a Fellow at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Chulalongkorn University, Thailand and Associate Professor and Head, Management and Security Studies, School of Business, SIM University. He was previously a Senior Fellow with the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


  1. Thailand's military regime must not jump the gun on Bangkok bomb investigation
    Damage is visible on the statue of Phra Phrom, which is the Thai interpretation of the Hindu god Brahma, after Monday's bombing at the Erawan Shrine at Rajprasong intersection in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015. A central Bangkok shrine reopened Wednesday to the public after Monday's bomb blast as authorities searched for a man seen in a grainy security video who they say was the prime suspect in an attack authorities called the worst in the country's history. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit) Photo: Sakchai Lalit

    It is still too early to attribute the bombings in Bangkok to any group, and to date no one has claimed responsibility.

    There are plenty of suspects: radical Red Shirts seeking to discredit the military regime by crippling the economy; southern Thai insurgents, in particular younger more radical members frustrated at the pace and scope of the insurgency now in its 12th year, but no closer to achieving its goals, who have been inching out of the deep south since December 2013; or international terrorist groups which have always seen Bangkok as a very appealing target.
    Each has motives and reasons to eschew such violence. The attack fits no group's MO, so nothing can be ruled out right now.

  2. But what is needed more than anything is for the investigation to take its course without political interference. At first the security forces pledged to not rule any suspects or groups out.
    And yet, one cannot forget the junta's recent handling of the April 2015 bombing on the resort island of Koh Samui: within hours senior junta leaders attributed the attack to radical Red Shirts, despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary.
    The bomb design was identical to those most commonly used in the south, the vehicle was from Yala, apparently stolen in an insurgent operation, and the attack mirrored the March 2013 bombing of the Lee Gardens hotel: detonated in a remote car park to cause few casualties but sending a clear signal.
    And yet the police commander from the deep south was quickly overruled by the national police chief and the junta. Investigations into Red Shirt connections have gone nowhere, with one arrest and quick release of a Red Shirt activist for a cryptic comment on Facebook.
    Quietly, so the junta does not lose face, there have been a number of arrests of southern insurgents in connection to the Samui attacks.
    That is not to say that insurgents were behind the two bombings in Bangkok. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that it was imported terrorism or a hybrid.

  3. But the investigation must follow the evidence, not the political dictates of a junta hell-bent on vilifying their political rivals. And sadly, the junta seems to be pursuing another Cheney-esque attempt to find evidence to fit their pre-existing political world view. The police chief Somyot Poompanmoung has already suggested Red Shirts were behind at least the second attack.
    Let us be clear: this was a massive intelligence failure on the part of Thai security forces that have richly rewarded themselves since the coup. Indeed, between the 2006 and 2014 coups, military expenditures increased nearly fourfold.
    Spending increased sharply in 2015 following the coup, which is set to rise by 7 per cent more in the 2016 budget, some $6.3 billion. Police and other security force expenditure has likewise increased as the regime has prioritised security since the May 2014 coup d'etat.
    At the same time, the military government has expanded their legal and investigative powers, in particular in the cyber and telecommunications fields.
    Despite all of these increases and new powers, the junta's obsession with neutralising their domestic political rivals has blinded them to other serious threats to national security. Their biases and aversion to facts give pause to the hope that the investigation will be conducted honestly and transparently.
    It's a reminder once again of the dangers posed by autocratic regimes that equate their own survival with national survival. That always leaves a country, its people and economy, more vulnerable.
    With the international community watching, there is finally some hope that the regime will do what's best for the country, not their consolidation of power.
    Zachary Abuza is a principal at Southeast Asia Analytics specialising in regional politics and security issues. He has authored numerous books including Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand (2008) and Militant Islam in Southeast Asia (2003).
    This article was first published by New Mandala, a specialist Southeast Asia website based at the Australian National University's Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

  4. Bangkok attack is deepening THE DIVIDE in Thai society
    Four days on, Thailand is still reeling from the carnage caused by a bomb that ripped through central Bangkok's iconic Erawan Shrine during Monday rush-hour.

    Amid the constant flow of reports - not all of them reliable - it may be premature to make claims about who was behind the attack. But it is not unreasonable to surmise that this was a terrorist act. As such, it will likely have unforeseen ramifications for Thailand well into the future.

    The blast took the lives of at least 20 people, but its after-effects may now be felt by all Thais as they endure life amid a seemingly irreconcilable societal divide. Thailand is a country already on the brink, and any additional stress could catalyse a descent into further disintegration and, ultimately, chaos.

    Returning to Bangkok on Monday from a trip abroad, I followed a path to the shrine beaten by countless others, Thais and foreigners alike. Less than an hour before the blast hit, the street was full of unsuspecting Thais and foreign tourists busily going about their day at the Ratchaprasong intersection.


  5. Things were calm, with a business-as-usual feel despite the current state of Thailand's fraught political scene. A steady stream of people were arriving to pray at Bangkok's most famous Hindu shrine. None could have suspected what was about to occur.

    But beyond the immediate and terrible impact of multiple deaths and injuries, this tragedy reveals much about Thailand. The public blame-game now being played out on social-media sites such as Facebook says a lot more about what lies beneath the Thai illusion of superficial calm, safety and notional reconciliation.

    After more than a decade of "colour-coded" political conflict, the coup of 2014 brought renewed hope for some citizens that schism-riven Thailand could now somehow be reunited. Yet at this time of national tragedy, the gap between those in the colour spectrum has grown rather than narrowed, mainly because of a dearth of much-needed critical thinking. The political divide has fuelled an escalating mentality of self-righteousness and impetuosity within Thai society, as citizens fall prey to a reflexive belief in the rumours that routinely condemn the "other side", while ignoring more challenging facts or uncomfortable realities.

    It is well understood by those who live in sharply divided societies - and especially by those that are repeatedly and continuously subjected to terrorism - that the consequences reach far beyond isolated incidents and their victims. Moreover, this fact is all-too-well understood by terrorists and reflected in their calculations.


  6. Already, much of the response to Monday's attack has moved to concern about the likely impact on Thailand's tourist industry. Tourism has become an increasingly important source of revenue amid an economic downturn in the months following the sudden and arbitrary "suspension" of the Thai democratic experiment. As such, the attack on the shrine, a tourist landmark, suggests a sophisticated approach aimed at further damaging the Thai economy.

    Recognition of a confluence of critical factors may well indicate -not only to the various potential Thai dissident groups that may be increasingly prepared to act violently, but also to all those who are disaffected with the current social-political impasse, and, of course, to the Thai authorities - that the already-high stakes are only likely to get higher.

    An immediate key concern for Thai tourism is that the influx of Chinese visitors that authorities had been banking on will dissipate dramatically. The shrine was popular with foreign visitors generally, and ethnic Chinese in particular - a fact tragically reflected in the list of casualties from Monday's attack.

    All of this was likely well understood by those who perpetrated the bombing.


  7. Before any serious attempts were made to identify the perpetrators, the Thai authorities were quick to claim that the attack was connected to the socio-political schism and turmoil. Most Thais would understand such statements as alluding to the involvement of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his alleged proxies. A determination to insinuate such connections to the political schism now permeates thinking in Thai society, as both sides of the divide bid to legitimise their position and its pre-established conclusions. It is dismaying to witness such a disregard for more measured responses that rest on determinable facts, due process and genuine justice.

    But the framing of events according to the prevailing social-political narratives has become the norm for most Thais these days. That norm holds whether they are well-rehearsed spokespersons of Thai authoritarian officialdom, opportunistic media pundits seeking an audience, or the millions of ordinary citizens who continue to react reflexively as they find themselves caught up in the tumult.

    This is no way to honour the memories of those who lost their lives at the Erawan Shrine this week. Neither does it address Thailand's all too apparent collective failings.

    DR TITIPOL PHAKDEEWANICH is a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at the UK's University of Warwick. He is based at Ubon Ratchathani University.