Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The world sings, Bangkok weeps.

The news spread so quickly in the era of the global village. Within minutes of the events people were texting me asking questions. I wasn't able to tell them much they didn't already know though, given the nature of the events and the authorities dealing with them. Bangkok was in a state of confusion.

Now things are a little clearer. In the build up to midnight on December 31st a series of bombs exploded within minutes of each other. The bombs were strategically placed to maximise both their profile and number of potential victims. The first explosion was at Victory Monument - not only an important symbol for Bangkok but also a central transport hub - this was followed by an explosion at the large urban area known as Klong Toey. This explosion was planted in a spirit house, which would be a major superstitious deterrent for almost any Thai. Undoubtedly the most important blow for the attackers was the explosion outside Central World Trade, the department store that acts as the focus for the annual new year's party.

News reporters struggled to keep up with the whirlwind of events though, unbelievably, some channels continued with their normal programme schedule. As reports of the first death came in and causalities increased, Bangkok governor Apirak Kosayothin stepped up at Central World Trade to cancel the party. Some revellers continued, apparently unknowing or uncaring that several foreigners and two Thais had been seriously hurt by an explosion from within a phone booth. A bomb at a seafood restaurant nearby also cause major injuries.

Although heavy on military protocol and southern insurgency, the majority of Thais - unlike the British - do not have the misfortune to be familiar with terrorist assaults. Panic ensued. Stores closed, police swarmed the city ( a highly dubious form of 'protection' ) , embassies issued knee jerk "warnings" to prospective visitors. It was all high on fear. The next day many Thais stayed at home, fearing to step into their high street.

But as relative calm ensued, facts came in and the police - aware of the international attention - did their best to look like they had competent investigations underway, the Thai newspapers printed their usual grizzly selection of bloody photos - a morbid yet intriguing insight into the Thai psyche - the TV channels began idle chat shows discussing everything and concluding nothing about the events, government worker Porntip Rojanasunant - a forensics expert treated almost as a celebrity due to her unusual appearance and forward thinking attitude - appeared at the bomb sites. The inevitable aftermath began.

Who was responsible for the attacks?

By all intelligence reports, expert and amateur anlaysis and reasoned ( as is possible for such a tragedy) argument , there are two suspects. However, there are factors pointing two and against both groups:

The southern Muslim insurgents.

This was my first conclusion. The issue of southern insurgency in Thailand is something I've been meaning to write about for some time, but it's a complicated issue. In short, Thailand took some land from Malaysia in the eighteenth century. Since then, ideological militancy has been omnipresent in the region, including a string of bomb attacks on Bangkok in 1980. After 9/11, militancy and terrorist attacks in the region soared, spurred on by gross mismanagement and insensitivity from the Thaksin government., most notably in the notorious Tak Bai incident. Like most Muslim militant groups, the southern separatists seem to have no problem mixing their religious goals with inhuman violence. Monks and teachers have been prime targets of random attacks, and on one occasion a group of one hundred villagers kidnapped two female teachers and beat them into a coma in response to a police arrest of one villager. The teachers were simply chosen at random. PM Surayud has gone to great lengths to heal hurt within the region, however attacks have continued.

There are several points that could suggest southern insurgency involvement in the attacks:

  • 1) Simply put, these are people who like to hurt and kill innocents and enjoy violence.
  • 2) Intelligence reports had warned of planned attacks by this group.
  • 3) Similar attacks in 1980.
  • 4) No denial has been issued by any insurgent leaders.

However, there are also points against them:

  • 1) It's uncharacteristic. Since the escalation of violence in the south post 9/11, all attacks have been within the southern provinces. Despite vague threats in the past, there have been no attacks in Bangkok or else since 1980.
  • 2) Simply put, the southerners are fish out of water in Bangkok. The sprawling metropolis is very different to the sleepy Muslim villages that have raised most of the twisted insurgents. Although Thais have little faith in their security forces, it's unlikely so many ,militant movements by the insurgents could have occurred without some prior warning or capture.
  • 3) After forty eight hours of police posing, forensic expert (non police employed) Porntip Rojanasunant has confirmed that the explosives used were different to those normally used by the militants.
  • 4) Evidence to an inside job. See below.


The other finger of suspicion points to what the government and army call "undercurrents". By this, they mean Thaksin Shinwatra, the ousted PM, his cronies, his family, and the many, many well connected figures that are in his service due to their greed and corruption. Since the September coup, many schools in the north east of Thailand - Thaksin's stronghold - have been hit by arson attacks. A campaign to discredit new PM Surayad was undertaken, and various other clandestine movements have been in action. These have been relatively well quashed by the Junta.

Evidence for the "undercurrents" is as follows:
  • 2) As mentioned, the weaponry used was dissimilar to that used by insurgents and included army issue explosives.
  • 3) Organisation. Most insurgent attacks have been messy, brutal and spontaneous. The attacks in Bangkok were well sequenced.

There are also points against the case for "undercurrents"

  • 1) What would they gain? Though many people wrongly consider that Thaksin and his men are too good or caring to be even knowledgeable of the attacks (Thaksin cares about nothing but money and power) , there seems to be nothing gained from such attacks except possibly undermining and unsettling the new regime.
  • 2) Uncharacteristic. Thaksin's tactics in the past have been more Machiavellian. The style of his government was to financially or characteristically discredit people. Other than the war on drugs and use of thugs to attack protesters, Thaksin's rule was brutal but relatively non - violent.

One more major point to consider here is how quickly the authorities pointed to the "undercurrents" for the blame. It seems very convenient. Thai authorities are known for their inefficiency, lack of training and corruption, yet 48 hours after such attacks all public fingers were pointing at Thaksin and his cohorts. This conclusion helps the new regime to demonise (as if it were needed!) and villanise the old PM as he continues to threaten by his presence alone. It's a most useful propaganda tool for the junta and surely achieves more than "undercurrents" would have done by instigating such attacks.

The mystery is likely to play itself out for some time yet. Thai politics are always dramatic. MP Chuwit has offered one million baht of his own money for any information leading to arrests, Thaksin's lawyer and the TRT party have both issued strong denials of involvement.

Hardly the ideal opening for 2007. After a tumultuous year of coups, protests, sickening southern violence and massive allegations of corruption, Thais are hoping for a better year. Sadly, with this tragedy sitting on top of a dubious national legislative assembly drawing a new constitution and ongoing investigations into corrupt politicians and continuing violence in the south , it may well be another trying year for the good people of Thailand.

For a written timeline of events and discussion about the forwarning of attacks see Bangkok Pundit I often disagree with many of his views but his coverage is excellent.

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