Thai bombs expose dangerous new divide

Shawn W Crispin
Asia Times
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

BANGKOK –Who is responsible for the coordinated bomb attacks that rocked Thailand's capital on New Year's Eve, resulting in at least three deaths, 38 injuries and sowing fear and chaos across the general population?

The unprecedented attacks on Bangkok represent a dangerous turn in the country's already tense political situation and provide powerful new justification for the military-led Council for National

Security (CNS) military installed government to maintain martial law, augment its security presence and crack down on political dissent across the country.

Speculation in the mainstream Thai and foreign media has variously pointed to either Muslim militants who have waged a violent insurgency against the government in the country's southernmost regions, or disenfranchised politicians and soldiers still loyal to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the CNS in a bloodless military coup on September 19.
Yet a thorough and independent investigation into the bombings should also include a probe into the possibility that renegade elements inside the CNS itself may have masterminded the crude attacks to discredit new Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont and provide Byzantine justification for a counter coup action that ousts Surayud's interim civilian administration and ushers in a period of total military control.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks, where low-grade explosive devices were planted in garbage bins, a used tire and even dropped from pedestrian footbridges onto police posts across the capital city. Significantly, the bombs were positioned in places and ways that aimed to minimize civilian injuries and casualties, and appeared to avoid venues were foreign casualties would compel foreign embassies to launch their own independent investigations into the attacks.

Surayud played down the possibility that Muslim insurgents, who historically have confined their attacks on targets in the country's southernmost region, more than 1,300 kilometers from Bangkok, were behind the attacks. According to news reports, he told reporters on Monday that an unidentified "old power clique" was most likely behind the attacks.

Chatuporn Promphan, deputy spokesman for the ousted Thai Rak Thai party that was headed by Thaksin, strongly denied that his party was behind the attacks, according to news reports. Thaksin echoed that line from self-imposed exile through a personal spokesman soon after the first bombs exploded.

The military-led CNS has since seizing power pointed ominously to the vague threat of "undercurrents" among underground Thaksin supporters, whom they contend are bent on destabilizing their regime and paving the way for the ousted premier to return to power.

The CNS has relied on the "undercurrent" bogey to justify maintaining martial law and banning political gatherings and protests. But growing popular calls to rescind martial law among Bangkok's politically assertive middle class - which significantly until now has supported the military intervention - have recently put popular pressure on the military appointed interim administration to rein in its strict social controls.

There is no evidence yet that the bombings were part of a planned counter coup action by Thaksin supporters in the military, many of whom were sidelined by the CNS soon after the September coup. Nor is it readily apparent how Thaksin's grass-roots camp, which insists that the ousted premier is still the country's rightful democratically elected leader, would stand to gain politically by attacking the general population they still profess to represent.

Apportioning blame, even obliquely, on Thaksin and his associates for the attacks would, however, potentially rejuvenate now flagging support for the CNS among sections of the Bangkok elite and middle class. That support has been tested by the CNS's sustained heavy-handed policies on the media and political groups, and was hit hard on December 19 by an unexpected capital controls policy that badly undermined foreign confidence in the government's management and led to the largest single-day drop ever on the Stock Exchange of Thailand.

Short political fuses
Significantly, the bombings come against the backdrop of rising tensions between military officials attached to the CNS, led by coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratklin, and the interim civilian-led administration it later appointed, led by Surayud, a former army commander and close advisor to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

While Sonthi has dictated personnel decisions, the methodical Surayud has maintained a firm grip on policy and processes. Behind the scenes, Surayud has come under growing fire from certain coup makers for not moving fast enough in prosecuting Thaksin on corruption charges, one of the military junta's four stated motivations for launching the coup, seizing power and suspending the progressive 1997 constitution.

The disgruntled coup makers have been particularly critical of appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Pridiyathorn Devakula, who served as central bank governor under Thaksin's government and has complicated a probe into a dodgy Bangkok land deal by the ousted premier's wife, Pojamarn Shinawatra, which his central bank legally endorsed.

So far Surayud has allowed investigations into Thaksin's and his political associates' alleged wrongdoings to take a slow but arguably sound legal course, apparently towards the broader reform aim of restoring judicial integrity and independence after years of political meddling under Thaksin. Yet the slow pace and so far inconclusive results of the various corruption investigations have been widely criticized in the Thai media, with some commentators starting to dare whether the coup that popularly ousted Thaksin was ever justified.

Moreover, Thaksin's former political allies, including former prime minister, army commander and spy chief, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, have started to up the tempo of their criticism of the interim administration's performance, including corruption allegations against Surayud related to a provincial land deal. Surayud has strenuously denied the allegations and vowed to resign if investigators found any misdeeds surrounding the transaction.

Surayud received King Bhumibol's strong endorsement during his highly anticipated nationally televised birthday address, of which some Bangkok-based political analysts interpreted veiled criticism of the ousted Thaksin in the monarch's broad brushstroke remarks about young people not respecting their elders. Even with that strong backing, new coup rumors pitching hardline officials attached to the CNS against Surayud's civilian administration composed of mainly retired bureaucrats have in recent weeks been circulating among Bangkok's chattering classes.

Whoever was responsible, the bombings will no doubt provide powerful new ammunition to CNS elements already skeptical of Surayud's stewardship and will no doubt give rise to new complaints that the former army commander has not done enough to guard against a possible rearguard action among Thaksin's alienated supporters inside the military. Significantly, CNS leader Sonthi was traveling in Saudi Arabia on New Year's Eve and cut his trip short to tend to the damage.

Despite its heavy-handed administration, the CNS still fears the prospect of Thaksin's many rural supporters converging on Bangkok under a pro-democracy banner and mounting large-scale protests against the coup leaders, which, by their own laws, they would be legally required to crack down on.

The New Year's Eve bombings will also provide strong new justification for the establishment of the CNS's 14,000-strong "Special Operations Force", a new secretive security force comprised of army and police officials aimed nominally at maintaining peace, law and order across the country, but which critics fear will be mobilized to ferret out and crush political dissent against military rule. Notably, the 556 million baht (US$15.3 million) earmarked last week by the cabinet for the controversial new security force came under strong media criticism just days before the bombings.

As investigations into the bombings commence and Thailand's interim government wobbles in the chaotic aftermath, it is quite possible that the smoke may never clear on exactly who was responsible for the unprecedented attacks. What is clear from the outset is that elements inside the Thai military itself had as much - if not more – political motivation than other potential actors for launching the crude and deadly attacks. And in the chaotic aftermath, the prospects for the CNS honoring its previous pledge to return the country to a democratic course later this year have grown considerably dimmer.



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