Wednesday, August 26, 2015

There will be grim consequences if the Bangkok blast proves to have its origin in domestic politics

Recent posts for New Mandala by Zachary Abuza and Lee Jones have accurately highlighted the obvious weaknesses in the Thai authorities’ investigation of the lethal bombing at the Erawan Shrine on 17 August.

Perhaps it should also be said, though, that few governments emerge from terrorist attacks looking good. Every terrorist attack represents an intelligence failure, and security agencies’ post-attack responses are often characterised by confusion and lack of coordination.

There has been much speculation about the identity of the terrorists who carried out the attack.

For Thailand’s military government and ordinary Thai people, the most worrying possibility is that the 17 August attack signalled a dramatic escalation of domestic political violence, whether the conflict in the Thailand’s far south, or the long-running fight for control of the national government. Many hundreds of Thais have lost their lives in these bitter conflicts since the 1970s.

In the south, ethnic-Malay insurgents routinely murder not only military and police personnel, but also schoolteachers, Buddhist monks and other civilians, and make frequent use of IEDs. On their part, the security forces have sometimes in the past, particularly under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration, reacted with excessive brutality to the insurgency.

However, although there have been signs of an expansion of the insurgents’ target-list to include tourist zones in the south, the southern conflict has until now been almost entirely contained within several provinces.

If southern terrorists were responsible for the 17 August attack – perhaps in retaliation for the military government’s hard-line towards peace negotiations – this would represent a serious expansion of an already vicious but contained conflict, with serious implications for international confidence in Thailand’s internal security.

Meanwhile, the central political conflict has seen large numbers of people from all sides lose their lives: students and left-wingers during the 1970s, students again in 1992, Red Shirts and soldiers in 2010, and Yellow Shirt protesters in 2013-14. However, the conflict has previously not involved any serious efforts to inflict large-scale casualties on civilians through terrorist attacks.

But while the military regime led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha has imposed superficial calm since the armed forces took power through their May 2014 coup, tensions have grown beneath the surface.

These tensions reflect not only a sense of disenfranchisement among the majority of the population whose political agency grew under the 1997 Constitution and the successive governments led or backed by Thaksin.

Most Thais recognise that, like it or not, the country’s present twilight era is likely to end soon. A struggle for power and wealth within Thailand’s conservative establishment may be imminent.

The nightmare scenario for Thailand would be outright violence between the country’s domestic factions, with ordinary people caught in the middle. The 17 August attack might provide a worrying portent of such violence.

However, despite sometimes contradictory and confusing statements from the Thai authorities, the circumstantial evidence that has emerged since the brutal and cowardly attack on the Erawan shrine suggests that it was more probably a manifestation of international terrorism than of domestic politics.

Under any government, Thailand, with its easy visa-free or visa-on-arrival access for many nationalities, its cosmopolitan environment, widespread corruption, pervasive organised crime, weak law-enforcement, patchy record of international cooperation on counter-terrorism, and plethora of sites popular with tourists, would be vulnerable to violent extremists from outside the country.

While in the past there doesn’t seem to have been a clear rationale for Islamist or other extremist groups to attack Thailand, Anthony Davies has argued quite persuasively that the Turkish nationalist-fascist group, the Grey Wolves,
may have perpetrated the bombing in retaliation for the Thai government’s forced repatriation of Uighur refugees to China.

If Thailand was a victim of international terrorism, this will pose serious challenges for the military government in Bangkok. To prevent future attacks, and to restore already sagging confidence in the country’s tourist sector, Thailand will need to improve its counter-terrorist capabilities, including in terms of intelligence collection and analysis. It will particularly need to intensify intelligence exchanges with the US, Australia, and other Western countries as well as Asian partners.

Indonesia’s acceptance of international support for its counter-terrorism effort following the 2002 Bali attack provides an example example of how such assistance can significantly bolster national capabilities. A bonus for Thailand and its international interlocutors would be expanded interaction on practical matters despite the tensions precipitated by Western governments’ reaction to the 2014 coup.

Overall, if the 17 August attack originated outside the country, there are grounds for an optimistic prognosis. With international assistance, the culprits may be tracked down. Enhanced counter-measures including tightened border controls and strengthened intelligence exchanges with regional and international partners could go a long way towards preventing similar attacks in future.

The outlook would be much grimmer if the attack was found to have domestic origins.

John Franklin is the nom de plume of a security analyst based in Southeast Asia. He has worked in the region since the 1980s.



  1. Bangkok blasts reveal a disturbing Thai chasm
    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 20 bomb explosions was reported between March last year and August, including before, during and after the 2014 coup. On Feb 17, terrorists exploded a bomb on a Thai-registered ship in Malaysian waters; another bomb exploded in Narathiwat province on Feb 20; 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 4kg. 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.

  2. 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 last year 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 election 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.

  3. 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 83 per cent or about 53 million people live on less than 300 baht (RM35) 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.


  4. 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.
    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 more than 300,000 cyclists for a 43km bike ride in honour of his mother, the queen. The prime minister, who joined them, also said 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.

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

  6. 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.
    By Antonio L Rappa fellow at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies,
    Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, and associate professor and head of management and security studies, School of Business, SIM University