Shawn W Crispin
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
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
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
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.