ATbar Bangkok Terror Attacks: Is there a Cause for Concern ?
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Bangkok Terror Attacks: Is there a Cause for Concern ?

14/01/2007 | by Kfir, Isaac (Dr.)  

Unlike scores of other cities around the globe, Bangkok ushered in 2007 in tears rather than jubilation. A number of small bombs known as "M-4 bombs", made primarily of ammonium nitrate, nails and ball bearings, were detonated by digital clocks in eight separate locations in the Thai capital.[1] The bombs left three people dead and over thirty injured, bursting the illusion that Thailand is politically, socially and economically stable.[2] In the words of Pornsilp Patcharintanakul, deputy chief of Thailand's Board of Trade, "The damage caused by the bombings is huge because it makes people think Thailand is unsafe – especially since the incident happened in Bangkok, which is the business center."[3] The bombings also emphasized a growing awareness in Thailand for the need to invest in security, as seen in the banking sector which has had to upgrade its security manuals due to concern over terrorism.[4] 

The aim of this paper is to shed some light on the current situation in Thailand, and focus on what needs to be done to restore security and stability, especially as Prime Minister Chulanont himself declared that Thailand needs to brace itself for a difficult period as he expects more attacks from rouge elements. He declared, ''This probably won't be the last time we see incidents of this kind… For some time in the future, we must prepare our hearts and minds to face this new form of threat to people's lives.''[5] Thailand, as well as the rest of Southeast Asia, is experiencing a tremendous transformation as they recover from the Asian economic crisis of 1997, democratization and a growing Islamic terrorism threat.[6]

Two Explanations

There are two key explanations as to who is responsible for the New Year’s Eve explosions. The first relates to the bloodless military coup of September 19, 2006, which removed the democratically elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra.[7] The second explanation centers on the Islamic insurgency in southern Thailand, which has claimed about two thousand lives in the last few years alone. There is also increasing concern that some of the separatist movements in the South have ties with al-Qa’ida and Jemmiah Islamiah,[8] Southeast Asia’s premier terror group.[9]

Blaming Thaksin

Lieutenant General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, Thailand’s first Muslim army commander-in-chief, led a military coup that overthrew the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. The generals operating through the Council for Democratic Reform (later called Council for National Security) justified the coup since Thaksin’s government was corrupt, authoritarian and most significantly, dividing the Thai people.[10] The Council promised that it would relinquish control to civilian bodies as soon as it felt confident that Thaksin and his cohorts would face charges for their abuse of power and a new constitution would be adopted.[11] 

General Sonthi and current Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a former army general installed by the military junta, claimed that the people behind the bombings were associates of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin who seek to return to power to ensure that they would retain the billions that they have acquired through alleged nefarious activities. This view is supported by such people as former Democrat Party leader Chuan Leekpai who stated, "The old power clique still has a strong footing…"; a view shared by National Legislative Assembly (NLA) member Sangsit Piriyarangsan who also called on the authorities to seize the assets of Thaksin's family.[12] Thaksin, who is currently in China, has strongly rejected these accusations holding that he would never hurt the Thai people. 

Thaksin’s party, Thai Rak Thai ("Thais love Thais") had, and still has, a very strong appeal in the countryside where Thaksin's policies were greatly approved, especially his health care and land reform programs.[13] Many of Thailand’s poor see Thaksin, who took office in 2001, as the man responsible for repairing the country’s economy following the 1997 Asian financial crisis and turning it into Southeast Asia’s leading economy by 2003. The middle class, however, became increasingly disillusioned with Thaksin, whom they saw as corrupt and authoritarian and willing to engage in nepotism.[14] Thus, it was protests from the mainly urban centers and the intelligentsia that led Thaksin to agree to annul the February 2005 election and call for a new one in April 2005. Thaksin and the TRT won comfortably as the opposition parties boycotted the election. The watershed came when the Thaksin family sold 1.49 billion shares of the family company called Shin Corporation to Singapore's Temasek Holdings, an investment fund managed by Ho Ching, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, which netted the Shinawatra family with $1.85 billion.[15] The sale coupled with allegations of inside trading involving Thaksin’s son Phantongtae, who benefited from the sale of the company,[16] infuriated the anti-Thaksin lobby and further polarized an already divided Thailand. Eventually, Thaksin submitted to the calls for his replacement and gave his deputy Chidchai Vanasatidya responsibility as to the day-to-day running of the country, which he took back after a month on the basis that the country needs to focus on security and economics.[17] But within a few months, the military stepped in whilst he was in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly. Thailand has been immersed in a debate about the coup and the current political situation ever since, with the Council for National Security coming under increasing criticism. Moreover, it appears that there are growing tensions between the poor in the countryside and urban centers over what is occurring in Thailand, as the poor feel that the ousted Thaksin cared more about them than the current administration.[18] 

Blaming the Insurgency

There are three principal issues that lie at the heart of the troubles in the south and which fuel the insurgency. The first is the belief in the greatness of the Kingdom of Pattani (Patani Darussalam), which the Kingdom of Siam incorporated in 1902 and a desire to separate from Thailand. Second, identification with the people of Malaysia made stronger by repeated cross-border contacts. Third, Islam, which acts as a unifying force for the people of the provinces. The three factors when linked together to the Islamic concept of hijra (“emigration in the ‘cause of God’”), which holds that Muslim communities have a religious right and a duty to 'withdraw' from a society that prevents Muslims from practicing their religion or persecutes them.[19] 

The insurgency in southern Thailand has intensified over the past few years, with weekly, if not daily killings of Buddhists (primarily teachers[20]), government officials and opponents of the insurgency. There has also been a marked increase in the sophistication of the tools used by the insurgents, which suggest that southern Thai insurgents could have caused the attacks in Bangkok.[21] Arguably, it was the hard-line tactics, including the imposition of martial law on the provinces, which some in south viewed as amounting to persecution, which led to the intensification of the insurgency. Incidents like the Tak Bai protest in which over 70 people died from suffocation when the military transported hundreds of demonstrators to a detention center, caused tremendous animosity towards Bangkok, Thaksin and the TRT.[22] 

The current administration and coup leader General Sonthi, who was making the Hajj at the time of the attacks, have rejected the claim that Muslim separatists caused the attacks mainly because of the distance and sophistication of the attacks. Moreover, General Sonthi stated, "Whoever did this was trying to create panic during the transition period from the old to the New Year when everyone is trying to enjoy themselves, and was trying to make it look like this government cannot assure the people's security."[23] 

The Pattani United Liberation Organization, one of the leading insurgent groups in the south, denied in a statement involvement in the bombings. The PULO statement declared, "We deny the baseless accusation of bombings' involvement because what concerns us is primarily the fighting for our Malay Muslim rights and ethnicity against Thai existence within the scope of our former Malay Kingdom of Pattani."[24] However, it is noteworthy that despite Thaksin's removal from office, the insurgency in southern Thailand continues, and this is despite some conciliatory statements made by the current administration.

Conclusion

The New Year’s Eve bombings emphasized the tense situation within Thailand, and it is central to reduce the tensions within the country. The country is already rife with rumours of a second military coup,[25] pro-democracy activists are concerned that the military junta would use the bombings to cling to power and avoid holding democratic elections;[26] and finally, pro-Thaksin elements (farmers for example) are beginning to stir.[27] General Saprang Kalayanamitr, an assistant secretary to the Council for National Security has already admitted "…most farmers still like the Thaksin government."[28]

At the same time, there has also been a rise in insurgency activity in south and if the evidence shows that the bombings were the work of southern Thai insurgents the implications are serious. First it would mean that the insurgency is moving out of the south, and to the heart of Thailand. This in itself may mean that the military has proven itself not only inept in stemming the insurgency but that it cannot protect the rest of the country from random terrorism act. Secondly, it would also suggest increase sophistication within the insurgency, which would have had to have traveled more than 1,400 kilometers to Thailand, engage in a somewhat elaborate plot (preparing, transporting and planting of the bombs, not to mention having an escape route).[29] Commentators are already suggesting that the insurgency in the south is becoming better organized as seen with the car bomb in Sungai Kolok in the province of Narathiwat in February 2005. The bomb, which weighed 50 kilograms, differed from previous bombs used in the south that weighed between 5 to 10 kilograms.[30] Third, the Thai authorities wish to reject the claim that Islamic terrorists were responsible for the attacks, as it would undermine Thailand’s fragile tourism industry, which is just recovering from the 2004 Tsunami. Ultimately, the only way for this situation to be resolved is through the restoration of proper democracy to Thailand and resolution of the insurgency in southern Thailand, which demands a change in government policy in terms of investment in the region and the removal of martial law. 

An unstable Thailand whether one beset by an internal power struggle involving rouge military elements or politicians conducting a campaign to undermine the current order or a rampant Islamic terrorism campaign would hinder Thailand from taking a lead in a number of key issues in the region such as crime, terrorism, drugs and economic progress, which would have a tremendous impact on stability across Southeast Asia.


Notes


[1] "All Bangkok bombs of the same type", The Nation [Thailand], January 9, 2007. Available on line at: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2007/01/09/politics/politics_30023641.php 

[2] Darana Chudasri "Attacks threaten economic growth" Bangkok Post [Thailand] January 04, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.bangkokpost.com/Business/04Jan2007_biz29.php; “Blasts may cut growth by half pct” Bangkok Post [Thailand] January 06, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.bangkokpost.com/breaking_news/breakingnews.php?id=115794 

[3] "Thai stocks fall after bombings", BBC News On-Line January 3, 2007. Available on line at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6226907.stm

[4] Darana Chudasri "Banks' southern experience points the way" Bangkok Post January 6, 2007. Available on line at: http://www.bangkokpost.com/060107_Business/06Jan2007_biz002.php 

[5] “Sonthi goes on TV to deny coup” Bangkok Post [Thailand] January 05, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.bangkokpost.com/News/05Jan2007_news02.php 

[6] Indonesia, the world’s most populated Muslim country has abandoned authoritarianism in favour of democratisation; Malaysia saw the peaceful transfer of power from Mahathir bin Mohamad to Abdullah Badawi. In terms of terrorism, the region has a number of dangerous Islamist terror groups ranging from the Indonesian-based Jemmiah Islamiah, to the Pilipino-based Abu Sayyaf Group.

[7] The elections of February 2006 were mirth in controversy because the opposition parties refused to contest them and opposition parties accused Thaksin of controlling the media. Ultimately, the TRT won almost 400 seats of the 500 parliamentary seats.

[8] Zachary Abuza “Indonesians Infiltrate Southern Thailand's Insurgency” Terrorism Focus Volume 3, Issue 27 (July 11, 2006), p. 2.

[9] In 2003, Thai security forces captured Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, a key member of al-Qa'ida and Jemmiah Islamiah, in Ayutthaya. Romesh Ratnesar "How and Al-Qaeda Bigwig Got Nabbed" Times Magazine August 17, 2003. Available on line at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,476279,00.html 

[10] “Thai coup leader unveils PM plans” BBC New On-Line September 20, 2006. Available on line at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/5362698.stm; Peter Walker and agencies “Thai military claims control after coup”, The Guardian [UK], September 19, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,1876216,00.html 

[11] To date, no concrete charges were brought against anyone affiliated with the Thaksin administration nor have there been any effective steps towards formulating a new constitution.

[12] Ampa Santimataneedol "Police accused of failing to protect public" Bangkok Post [Thailand] January 02, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.bangkokpost.net/020107_News/02Jan2007_news07.php 

[13] Thaksin's policies centered on a $2.3 billion fund for village development, debt cancellation for farmers, low interest loans and cheap medical care. John Aglionby "Despotic? Maybe. Dictator? No" The Guardian [UK] September 26, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/elsewhere/journalist/story/0,,1881400,00.html 

[14] In October 2004, Thaksin appointed his cousin, General Chaisit Shinawatra, army chief and then the military's supreme commander. He later appointed his brother-in-law Priawpan Damapong as deputy chief of the national police. Simon Elegant "Taking Heat" Time Magazine February 12, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.time.com/time/asia/magazine/article/0,13673,501060220-1158998,00.html 

[15] " Thaksin helps himself" The Economist January 26, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.economist.com/World/asia/displayStory.cfm?story_id=5444898 

[16] Simon Elegant "Taking Heat" Time Magazine February 12, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.time.com/time/asia/magazine/article/0,13673,501060220-1158998,00.html 

[17] In February 2006, 29 Senators submitted a petition to the Constitutional Court calling for the impeachment of Thaksin. A month later, around 100,000 people marched in Bangkok calling for Thaksin to resign. Emmeline Ravilious "Timeline: From contested elections to military coup" Financial Times [UK] September 19, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/68906b70-4806-11db-a42e-0000779e2340.html 

[18] "Govt. warned of farmers reaching breaking point" Bangkok Post [Thailand] January 07, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.bangkokpost.com/News/07Jan2007_news09.php 

[19] Angel Rabasa and Peter Chalk. Indonesia's Transformation and the Stability of Southeast Asia. (Santa Monica: RAND Cooperation, 2001), pp. 94-95; Southern Thailand: Insurgency or Jihad” International Crisis Group Asia Report No. 98 – May 18, 2005, (Singapore).

[20] In the past three years, Muslim insurgents have killed 64 teachers in the South. "64 teachers have been killed by Muslim insurgents" The Nation [Thailand] January 14, 2007. Available on line at: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/breakingnews/read.php?newsid=30024058 

[21] Peter Chalk has noted, “During 2004, 878 attacks were recorded in the region, which represents a 25 percent increase over the average annual incident rate for the 1990s. Total casualties were 841, including 325 deaths and 516 injuries. Figures in 2005 have continued to exhibit a rapidly escalating trend. Between January and September some 1,084 assaults took place, killing 367 people and wounding another 282.” Peter Chalk “The Indigenous Nature of the Thai Insurgency” Terrorism Monitor Volume 4, Issue 1 (January 12, 2006), p. 6.

[22] "Listen to South, local leaders tell govt." The Nation [Thailand] February 9, 2005. Available on line at: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/Election2005/news/news.php?news=02/09020503.htm 

[23] "PM condemns bombing, Sonthi returns this afternoon" Bangkok Post January 1, 2007. Available on line at: http://www.bangkokpost.com/breaking_news/breakingnews.php?id=115646 

[24] “PULO denies planting bombs” Bangkok Post [Thailand] January 06, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.bangkokpost.com/News/06Jan2007_news03.php 

[25] Wassana Nanuam “Prem tries to heal fresh row” Bangkok Post January 6, 2007. Available on line at: http://www.bangkokpost.com/News/06Jan2007_news11.php 

[26] This accusation is already being made Chaturon Chaisang, the TRT caretaker party leader. "Chaturon: CNS is becoming a dictator" The Nation [Thailand] January 14, 2007. Available on line at: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/breakingnews/read.php?newsid=30024105 

[27] There have been rumors that farmers from the northeast would travel to Bangkok to protest at the government's failure to tackle the huge debt problem that afflicts the countryside. "Govt. warned of farmers reaching breaking point" Bangkok Post [Thailand] January 07, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.bangkokpost.com/News/07Jan2007_news09.php 

[28] "Farmers are threatening to stage protest in Bangkok" The Nation [Thailand] January 14, 2007. Available on line at: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/breakingnews/read.php?newsid=30024107 

[29] The police have already come under increasing criticism for failing to deal to arrest those responsible for the attacks. Ampa Santimataneedol "Police accused of failing to protect public" Bangkok Post [Thailand] January 02, 2006. Available on line at: http://www.bangkokpost.net/020107_News/02Jan2007_news07.php 

[30] Peter Chalk “The Indigenous Nature of the Thai Insurgency” Terrorism Monitor Vol. IV, Issue 1 (January 12, 2006), pp. 6-7. Available on line at: http://www.jamestown.org/terrorism/news/uploads/TM_004_001.pdf 

Zachary Abuza “Alternate Future for Thailand’s Insurgency” Terrorism Focus Vol. III, Issue 3 (January 25, 2006), pp. 5-6. Available on line at: http://www.jamestown.org/terrorism/news/uploads/tf_003_003.pdf