Friday, April 2, 2010

Bombs Away in Thailand

A campaign of terror is underway in Thailand, with both sides to the political conflict pinning blame on the other for a series of grenade attacks that have targeted government

offices, military installations and private businesses. Unknown assailants have launched more than a score of explosives attacks this month amid a heavy security force presence in the national capital. While early attacks were seemingly designed to avoid human casualties, more recent blasts have targeted populated areas and seriously injured soldiers and civilians. Some fear the surge in violence signals a dangerous new phase of the four-year-old conflict pitting supporters and detractors of self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 military coup.

The explosive attacks in Bangkok have coincided with anti-government street protests spearheaded by the United Front Against Dictatorship for Democracy (UDD), a Thaksin-aligned protest group that remobilized in mid-March to pressure Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and call new polls. The rally represents the UDD's first major mobilization since last April's demonstrations degenerated into rioting and eventuated in a military crackdown.

The present rally was organized two weeks after Thailand's Supreme Court ruled to seize more than US$1.4 billion worth of Thaksin's assets. The protesters' demand that the government stand down immediately comes as Abhisit's Democrat Party stands to reap political benefits from a gathering economic recovery that has buoyed the stock market and currency amid the protests. Talks this week aimed at defusing tensions between Abhisit and UDD co-leaders broke down over conflicting views on a timetable for holding new elections. In response, the UDD has vowed to amass its largest demonstration yet in a waxing and waning three-week-old campaign many fear could yet tilt towards violence as protest leaders fail to achieve their stated aims.

Against that confrontational backdrop, there are conflicting theories about the possible masterminds and motivations behind the grenade attacks, with some more plausible than others. UDD leaders have claimed that the military is behind the attacks to discredit their self-proclaimed "peaceful" and "non-violent" protest movement. They've suggested the military has cynically targeted its own and other government facilities to blame its protestors and justify suppression.
"We are afraid it is the security forces themselves that plant them and blame us," said Sean Boonracong, the UDD's international spokesman, by text message. "The international media are skeptical of the 30 bombs exploded in Bangkok and yet they do not blame us." He insinuated that US-trained Thai troops have orchestrated the bombings - though to date security officials have exercised restraint when confronted by UDD protestors. "The black ops taught by the US is an old hat and has not done the tricks it used to," Boonracong said. "The army cannot plant the bombs and coup themselves to restore stability" as they have in the past.

Days before the UDD took to the streets, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban claimed that foreign governments, including reportedly the US, provided intelligence warning of possible sabotage at UDD rallies based on information gleaned from wiretapped telephone conversations involving Thaksin. The US embassy has declined to comment on Suthep's claims, and before the UDD rally began in a statement urged protestors and their leaders to "forswear the use of violence" and for the government to "exercise appropriate restraint". One US embassy official was for unclear reasons on the scene with reporters videotaping a March 17 blood-spilling ritual by the UDD at the front gate of Abhisit's personal residence.

While the circumstances around the attacks are murky, many analysts discount the UDD's claims that the military's top brass is behind the bombings. They reason that the military has little, if any, motivation to further destabilize Abhisit's coalition government, which top soldiers allegedly helped from behind-the-scenes to cobble together in a late 2008 parliamentary vote.

Top army commanders are believed to favor the political status quo until at least October, when a scheduled reshuffle should see through its planned transition from army commander Gen Anupong Paochinda to his deputy, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, a handover the Thaksin-aligned opposition Peua Thai party would likely thwart if it won power at the polls. Anupong was involved in the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin.

While Anupong famously refused to act on previous Thaksin-aligned governments' orders to suppress People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protestors in 2008, including while the protest group occupied Bangkok's international airports, he has worked in lockstep with Abhisit's government to maintain law and order during UDD demonstrations.

Loose Arms

Poorly guarded military armories and easy black-market access to basic munitions means that there is a deep pool of potential suspects for the attacks beyond the military, say analysts. Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said that police investigations into the attacks revealed "political groups" were involved in certain assaults and that evidence showed assailants "weren't too experienced in launching RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]".

He strongly denied UDD allegations of official involvement in the attacks. "We have no benefits or motives for doing so. The attacks are a negative for us, especially when they attack our own offices." He said that the government had "cooperated closely" with UDD leaders to ensure the protests' security.

Intelligence officials, foreign diplomats and other political analysts who spoke with Asia Times Online all said that they believe radical elements loyal to Thaksin - though not necessarily on his orders or with the UDD's knowledge - are more likely behind the bombs. None of those interviewed, however, provided hard evidence to corroborate their assessments. One Bangkok-based diplomat speculated that it was "no coincidence" that the grenade targets were often the same government institutions that house the bureaucratic elites that UDD leaders have pilloried from their protest stage. He noted that while there were similar anonymous grenade attacks during the rival PAD protests in 2008, in contrast the explosions were launched inside, not outside, of the protest site.

Another diplomat tracking developments believes that certain of the bombings against military targets have been designed to goad an armed response that the UDD would aim to portray as a repeat of the 1992 bloody clashes that saw soldiers kill more than 200 pro-democracy street demonstrators and resulted in King Bhumibol Adulyadej intervening to restore stability and reconcile opposing camps.

In particular, the diplomat believes last Saturday's grenade attack at the 11th Infantry Division, launched just hours before UDD protestors arrived en masse at the installation, where Abhisit, Suthep and Anupong have holed up to monitor security developments, was coordinated to elicit a retaliatory military response against unarmed demonstrators. (At least seven soldiers have been injured in grenade attacks launched at military installations since the UDD launched its protests; so far there have been no reported incidents of security forces injuring protestors.)

"Everyone in the government and military, top-to-bottom, know that these are attempts to provoke a reaction and no-one is fooled," said one diplomat, on condition of anonymity. "The people behind these attacks are either deluded, thick or desperate, and Thaksin fits at least one of those categories." In his phone-in addresses to the protest site, Thaksin has advocated non-violence, but in a recent speech told his followers to prepare for "sacrifices".

Other analysts believe that the mysterious violence corresponds with previous UDD threats to take up arms. The UDD said in a recent press statement that it had abandoned its previous call to "armed struggle" and from its protest stage UDD leaders have distanced themselves from more radical Thaksin supporters who had criticized the UDD's tactics and advocated more aggressive means to topple the government.

It's unclear to some diplomats and analysts whether the bombings are an outgrowth of competition between different camps jockeying to maintain Thaksin's favor. The radicals include most notably Maj Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol, alias Seh Daeng, who earlier claimed to organize the UDD's black-vested security detail but in recent weeks has criticized the protest group's leadership and publicity stunt tactics. His personal aide, Pornwat Thongthanaboon, alias K-Thong, is being held in police detention in connection with a YouTube clip in which he accurately predicted bombings would occur across Bangkok in the wake of the Supreme Court verdict against Thaksin. Seh Daeng has told local media that he is not responsible for the recent grenade attacks, but he has also predicted accurately that the bombing campaign would continue.

A series of photos making the email rounds among diplomats and others shows a fatigue-wearing Seh Daeng and Thaksin arm-in-arm and conferring in recent weeks at the exiled former leader's plush residence in Dubai. The final photo in the series shows Seh Daeng and UDD leader Veera Musikapong, sporting a pink polo shirt, in a state of embrace at the bottom of an elaborate staircase.

It's thus not clear to some analysts whether the public split between mainstream and radical pro-Thaksin camps is real, or fabricated to obscure left-hand, right-hand tactics that are aimed at maintaining popular support for the UDD through claims to non-violence, while seeking in coordinating fashion to destabilize the government through mysterious grenade attacks.

Some analysts fear that the UDD's failure to topple the government, or to win through talks any substantial concessions from Abhisit, will lead the pro-Thaksin protest group towards more drastic measures. But at least one recent public opinion poll showed that substantially more Thais believe Abhisit should complete his term rather than yield to the UDD's demands for immediate dissolution, and its not clear that more grenade attacks from either side will change that popular sentiment. By Shawn W Crispin Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.

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