A bombing and many targets

Print edition : September 18, 2015

Rescue workers help the injured outside the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok's Chidlom district after a powerful explosion on August 17 killed 22 people and injured more than 120. Photo: PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP

A view of the Erawan Shrine and the blast site on August 18 morning. Photo: ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA/REUTERS

Moments after the explosion. Photo: Jerry Harmer/AP

A CCTV image of the suspect, released by the Thai Police. Photo: AP/HANDOUT

The motive for the recent terror attack in Bangkok remains a mystery and the suspects range from domestic players to the Uighur separatists in China.

Thailand experienced its deadliest terror attack on August 17 when a bomb went off at the Erawan Shrine, a popular Hindu shrine in the capital, Bangkok, visited throughout the day by large numbers of tourists. Twenty-two people were killed and more than 120 injured in the attack, which was designed to cause heavy casualties. Many foreigners, seven of them from China and Hong Kong, were among those killed. Many of the wounded are also from China and Taiwan. Two unexploded bombs were discovered after the carnage. The explosion was so powerful that the concrete of the temple wall was stripped off. Within 24 hours of the bombing, there was an attempt to target a boat carrying tourists; a bomb that was hurled from a bridge narrowly missed its target.

So far no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Thai security services have been able to identify only one suspect from a grainy video footage of the crime scene. He has distinctly non-Thai features, was wearing a yellow shirt and was seen leaving the temple premises after dropping a suspicious-looking bag. The explosion followed soon after. “The yellow-shirt guy is just not the suspect, he is the bomber”, a top Thai police officer told the media soon after the horrific incident. The suspect, who the Thai authorities insist is a foreigner from either Europe or West Asia, had not been apprehended until late August, despite his photograph being widely circulated. The Prime Minister and Army strongman General Prayuth Chan-ocha initially said that only Thai agencies would be doing the investigation. But the government soon changed its stance following international diplomatic pressure and announced that it was seeking the help of foreign agencies. An Interpol alert has been sounded for the suspect.

Thailand’s military junta, the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO), which celebrated its first anniversary in office in June, was quick to lay the blame on domestic players without giving tangible supporting evidence. The opposing sides in Thailand have occasionally shot at each other and thrown grenades but have never resorted to terror attacks of the scale witnessed in August. The junta was also quick to rule out the hand of insurgent groups in southern Thailand. The minority Muslims in the region, spearheaded by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordanasi (BSN-I), have waged a low-level guerilla war against the central government in Bangkok for many years now demanding autonomy for their province. In recent months, they have used pipe bombs, similar to the one used in the attack on the temple, against the Thai military in the south of the country. In July, the Muslim rebels staged 27 IED (improvised explosive device) attacks. Six months ago, two smaller pipe bombs had exploded at the Siam Paragon Mall, a popular tourist spot in Bangkok. The government had blamed the opposition “Red Shirts” for that attack.

One theory on the latest terror attack is that Chinese tourists were the target and that the perpetrators had links with the separatist Uighurs. In July, Thailand had deported more than one hundred Uighurs to China, which “suspected [them] of [engaging in] terrorism. According to reports, China suspected that the Uighurs were undergoing training in southern Thailand preparatory to joining the jehad in West Asia. The deportation incident had infuriated the Uighur community in exile. Many Uighurs hailing from western Xinjiang are active in organisations such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (I.S.) and in recent years they have carried out many terror attacks on the Chinese mainland.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the coup that ousted the democratically elected government in May 2014, implied that the supporters of the former ruling party were responsible for the heinous act. A spokesman for the NCPO told Bangkok Post that in all likelihood “the perpetrators are the same group which lost political benefits and want to create chaos in the country”. He was referring to the “Red Shirt” movement that has now coalesced into a grouping known as the “United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship”, which is demanding the restoration of democracy. The supporters of the ousted government have reasons to be angry as the ruling junta wants to impose a new constitution that will permanently exclude the majority from power. On September 6, the country’s National Reform Council, which is dominated by the military and its supporters, is expected to approve a new constitution that will give the Army a permanent say in the running of the government. A referendum on the constitution is scheduled to be held in January next year. The Constitution Drafting Commission has not hidden its main agenda, which is to “end parliamentary dictatorship”. In other words, under the proposed constitution, Parliament will be reduced to a rubber stamp. In July, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was barred from politics for five years.

Under the proposed constitution, 123 of the 200 Senate seats will have nominees of the military and the pro-royalist bureaucracy. The lower house will be under the purview of an “ethics committee” that will have the power to remove MPs from ministerial posts on “moral” or “ethical” grounds. The proposed constitution bans politicians from passing laws “that establish personal political popularity”. The new constitution is of the view that such laws could “prove detrimental” to the national economy and the public interest “in the long run”. The junta is ruling on behalf of the Bangkok elite and its storm troopers, “the Yellow Shirts”. The Yellow Shirts had, with the active help of the Army and the security apparatus, brought Bangkok to a standstill early last year and prevented the government from functioning. They had openly called on the military to intervene.

After the attack on the shrine, the government deployed more security personnel in Bangkok and the north-east of the country. That region is the power base of the Shinawatras, Yingluck and her elder brother, Thaksin, who was ousted as Prime Minister in a military coup in 2006. Yingluck met the same fate last year, despite her party, the Pheu Thai, having a majority in Parliament. The party continues to have strong support in the countryside. During its years in power, the party introduced schemes that empowered the peasantry. These included providing subsidies and loans to farmers. The Shinawatra government also ensured higher minimum wages for workers.

Questions are being raised about the timing of the recent terror attack. Some observers of Thai politics have said that such attacks will give credence to the Army's stance that its presence at the helm of affairs is crucial for the country’s security as it prepares for a politically fraught royal succession. More than 40 people have been given lengthy prison sentences allegedly for the crime of “lese majeste” (insulting the monarchy). On taking power, the junta had annulled the Constitution except for the chapter on the monarchy.

Media censored

Hundreds of political opponents are in jail. The media are heavily censored. Political protests and gatherings have been banned. “Behind the facade of stability, the junta has steamrolled fundamental human rights and runs the country unchecked. Members of the military have been directly responsible for a myriad of violations of international law, but there is no way of holding them responsible”, according to Andrea Giorgetta, head of the Asia Desk of the International Federation for Human Rights. Elections are scheduled to be held in September next year. There are indications, given the growing public disaffection, that the elections will be postponed.

The junta, which has the backing of the United States, has scrapped many of the populist schemes that the democratically elected government had introduced. The Thai military has signed on to U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot to the East”. The armies of the two countries held joint military exercises in February this year. The Obama administration had postponed the joint military exercises last year to signal its displeasure at the coup mounted by the armed forces. The Thai political and military establishments have traditionally been close to the U.S. They sided with the U.S. during the war in Vietnam. The two countries had tried to destabilise Cambodia after the removal of the murderous regime of Pol Pot. The U.S. is afraid that if it continues to snub the Thai military rulers, China may step into the breach.

The subsidy to rice farmers is among the schemes that have been put on the chopping block by the military rulers. Rice output has gone down significantly, and a drought this year has added to the problem in a situation where 40 per cent of the country’s work force is engaged in agriculture.

The economy, too, has not been doing well. In fact, the Thai economy is among the worst performing ones in Asia. Manufacturing has slowed down, exports are shrinking and external debts are rising. The growth forecast for 2015 has been tempered down from the original 3 to 4 per cent to 2.7 to 3.2 per cent. The Bangkok bombing may most probably have an impact on the earnings from tourism. Tourism revenues account for 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said that those responsible for the terror attack “intended to destroy the economy and tourism”.

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