Confusion in Thailand Over Bomb Attacks

Bangkok residents awoke to a New Year's Day of confusion as officials tried to put a face to the anonymous killers who detonated a series of bombs across the city on New Year’s Eve, leaving three dead and more than 30 injured.

Military-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont on Monday claimed that unnamed political opponents were behind the explosions that marred the holiday and brought terror to a city that prides itself on being peaceful, but he failed to present any evidence.

He downplayed similarities with tactics used in the predominately Muslim southernmost provinces, where an increasingly brutal insurgency has claimed more than 1,800 lives since January 2004.

“Based on the information we have, [the bombings] concern those who lost political interest, but it's still too soon to pinpoint whether it is the former government,” Surayud told reporters at a press briefing. “But I'd like to say that there is a slim chance they are linked with the Southern insurgency.”

Surayud’s quick dismissal of the Southern connection raised many eyebrows here on Monday.

“I am 90 percent convinced this is an attack by southern separatists because of the information gathered over recent years that has pointed to southern militant attacks in Bangkok targeting the areas hit on Sunday night,” a military source told the Asia Sentinel. “The devices, although smaller and a little more sophisticated in the way they were put together, were similar to those used in the South. I have heard nothing from any senior people in the Thaksin camp to make me believe they were planning to carry out something like this or would want to."

The bombings rocked normally carefree Bangkok, where violence has been kept at bay despite mass protests that began a year ago calling for the ouster of twice-elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. There were threats of clashes and a few minor unsolved bombings during the first nine months of last year but life in the capital went on as usual.

Even when the generals rolled tanks into Bangkok on September 19, ousting Thaksin and seizing power by gunpoint, no shots were fired and pictures of smiling soldiers were used to try and convince the world that Thais do things differently.

Still, the junta’s three months in control have been marred with political missteps. And now the New Year’s Eve bombings.

It remains to be seen what, if any, evidence will emerge to bring Sunday’s masterminds to light. If anything has characterized the steady carnage in the South, it has been the failure of police to bring culprits to justice, and the unwillingness of perpetrators to claim responsibility for attacks.

In any case, with a junta in power that has banned any political dissent and unseated a populist Prime Minister, analysts fear more violence in the year to come.

“The bombings are extremely worrying,” said an Asian diplomat who monitors political events here. “This looks to be a very troubling year for Thai politics. Anytime generals seize power in a coup, it breeds instability.”

All eyes are now on the police investigation. Fears that the Southern insurgency would spread to Bangkok a year ago prompted Thaksin’s government to put up closed-circuit television cameras across the capital, including in several locations attacked on Sunday.

One bomb in Nonthaburi’s Khae Rai district went off at an intersection fixed with eight surveillance cameras on a route frequented by the Royal family. But the cameras all reportedly stopped working three hours before the attack, which may further add to the mystery.

“It's important to look at the police investigation,” a military source told the Asia Sentinel. “They have CCTV and all other information at their disposal. If they fail to make headway in the investigation then suspicions will begin to grow.”

The bombings came in two waves. The first began shortly after 6 pm, when six blasts in separate locations initially killed two and injured 26. A third victim of those attacks died on Monday in hospital during an operation.

The most vicious bomb was planted at a bus stop near Victory Monument, one of the busiest intersections in Bangkok. It claimed two lives and injured 17.

The third death came from a bomb planted in a trash can near the Na Ranong intersection in Klong Toei, home to the largest slums in the city. Five people were also injured there. The four other bombs in the first wave injured a number of bystanders but killed nobody.

Immediately after the first six bombings, city authorities canceled New Year’s Eve festivities at major tourist areas, including Silom Road and CentralWorld, a massive shopping mall where countdowns typically take place. Despite the warnings, however, revelers still gathered at these locations Sunday night.

As Bangkok welcomed the New Year, fireworks still lit up the sky. When they stopped, sirens could be heard rushing to CentralWorld, where two more bombs exploded around midnight.

These explosions injured 10, including eight foreigners. None were seriously hurt. Suvit Yodman, Thailand’s Tourism Minister, was on hand in the early morning hours of Monday to offer assistance to the victims.

He declined to answer a question about any possible effect the bombing may have on tourism, saying only: “We are concerned about getting the best possible treatment for everybody.”

It’s unclear why police didn’t find the second bombs, which exploded about 100 meters from each other, in a popular tourist area close to police headquarters.

“Police and military heading the investigations told me they had already swept the areas [at CentralWorld after the first wave of bombings], including the phone box where the bomb went off, and didn't find anything” the military source said. “They claimed the bombs were placed after they swept the areas."

"It's a lame excuse,” he added. “I think it was a confusing time and the police faced a shortage of people, many of whom were not well trained for such an incident and they overlooked it.”

Several theories are now emerging as to who is behind the violence.

The first that emerged right after the bombings, but was since dismissed by Surayud, is that Southern insurgents are moving their attacks to Bangkok. On some levels, the bombings fit the profile of the shadowy militant groups: They hit public spaces, they were of about the same force, and nobody took responsibility for them. Security sources have warned for months that the insurgency could spill to other provinces, including tourist havens like Phuket and Bangkok.

The Thai-language daily Krungthep Turakij, part of The Nation group, reported on its website that the National Security Agency knew that bombings were planned in Bangkok for several weeks since they discovered a map of the capital in a house owned by separatists in southern Thailand’s Yala province. The map reportedly pointed out several locations, including Victory Monument, Klong Toei, and Seacon Square. If true, the news would indicate that authorities failed to thwart the attacks.

Surayud alluded to this at his press conference, telling reporters: “It was very clear that even though we tried to monitor and take care of the situation, we still can't stop the well-planted bomb, which, in my opinion, was copied from other bomb incidents. But anyway we'll make sure to find out who caused this.”

If southern insurgents were involved, it would discredit the other two major theories: One, that Thaksin’s associates orchestrated the attacks, or that the military itself planted the bombs to further tighten their control.

Thaksin’s lawyer quickly dismissed allegations that he was involved, telling reporters that the former premier is in Beijing and expressed sorrow over the attacks.

“He insisted that he did not even think about creating disturbance or violence so that he could return to power," Noppadol Pattama, his legal adviser, was quoted as saying by The Nation newspaper. “Thaksin said he is worried and feels that it is unfair to link him and the old power clique for the bomb attacks.”

Certainly the military government will jump at the chance to blame Thaksin for the attacks. Every major move by the coup leaders, including the putsch itself, has been justified as a necessary response to threats posed by unnamed pro-Thaksin “undercurrents.”

“Of course Surayud would blame Thaksin because the entire legitimacy of the junta is based on prosecuting Thaksin,” said Ji Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. “But what possible gain could Thai Rak Thai get from setting off bombs? Thaksin’s whole strategy was to get power from elections. Bombings won’t help get votes.”

By quickly linking Thai Rak Thai members to the attacks without presenting evidence, the military may be hoping to whip up support for the junta leaders, who have seen more opposition in recent weeks. Coup leader Sonthi Boonyaraglin, taking part in the Hajj in Mecca currently, has recently been accused of illegally having two wives. And Surayud himself has come under attack for allegedly purchasing land in a forest reserve, which is illegal.

Those who doubt Thaksin or his supporters would do such a thing say the bombings were orchestrated by the generals to further maintain power as a scared public will more readily accept curbs to civil liberties and tough measures against the former prime minister.

The military decided on Friday to continue banning political activities and as the work of drawing up a new constitution begins, painting politicians in a negative light could allow more space for unelected bureaucrats and military types to play a larger role.

“I think Surayud has no grounds to dismiss the South,” Ji Giles said. “Surayud wants to prove that his government is making a difference in the South. He doesn’t want to say that nothing has been solved since he took over.”

Experts and diplomats say insurgents have the power to expand attacks beyond the south. And despite initial optimism that Thaksin’s ouster would help bring peace to the troubled region, the violence has continued unabated.

Whatever the truth may be, more nameless killers are moving around at large in Thailand and many people have little faith that the investigation will lead to any arrests.

“We need a reduction in state violence, whether it be in the form of controlling the South or staging a coup,” Ji Giles said. “Before the people could protest and vote out governments if they didn’t like them. That’s why a coup d’etat is never a democratic solution. Even though it was bloodless at the time, it was a violent act.”