Deadly Bombs Make Bangkok Unsafe

At least 71 bombs have exploded in Bangkok this year, both before and after the failed Red Shirt revolution of April and May, causing random damage, injuries and a handful of deaths and an increasingly worried and frustrated citizenry.

During September, successful and failed bombings have targeted a school, a shopping mall's car park, the Public Health Ministry's parking lot, the Royal Turf Club, a ruling politician's office, and public sidewalks. The scattered timing and locations of the blasts have people baffled.

The bombings have averaged about two a week in a city now gripped by political polarization after the Red Shirts' failed insurrection. Another 43 explosive devices have been defused, police say. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and other officials recently issued what sounded like a macabre weather report -- bleakly warning that more bomb attacks would occur in October but may taper off in November.

"If the conflict is not resolved, it is likely that more bombs will be used in attacks, especially IEDs (improvised explosive devices) because they are easily assembled," warned Explosive Ordnance Disposal Police Lt. Col. Khamthorn Auicharoen.

Security officials blame frustrated pro-democracy Red Shirt revolutionaries for what they characterize as bloody revenge assaults after the military crushed the nine-week insurrection last spring, leaving 91 people dead -- mostly civilians -- and more than 1,500 injured. However, some critics blame police and military officials themselves, especially after the disappearance of considerable amounts of explosives and weapons from presumably well-guarded armories. Bombings have included 40-mm, M-67, M-26, MK-2, RGD-5 and rocket-propelled grenades, police said.

"Do not seek to destroy the army, even if you have failed to secure a promotion," Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha told Thailand's splintered, poorly disciplined military earlier this month.

Some 32 rocket-propelled grenades, 8,000 bullets for US-supplied M-16 assault rifles and other weaponry disappeared from an army arsenal during September. A similar mysterious theft of 69 hand grenades and 3,100 bullets for assault rifles occurred at a different army depot in March.

As Bangkok's security degenerates, residents have become increasingly jittery and suspicious while demanding an immediate solution after each new bomb blast. A "How to Identify a Bomb" advisory was published in the English-language Bangkok Post on Oct. 10, describing an array of the grenades, Molotov cocktails and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) built with dynamite, empty fire extinguishers, cooking gas cylinders, fertilizer, diesel fuel, nails, fireworks, and detonators linked to cell phones, which have been used in recent weeks to wreak havoc in the Thai capital.

The worst blast to hit the area in many years ripped apart two floors of an apartment building on Oct. 5 in Nonthaburi province, 40 kilometers north of Bangkok, killing four people, including the alleged bomb maker. Investigators said electrician Samai Wongsuwan, a known Red Shirt activist from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, apparently accidentally detonated a device made of 10 kg of TNT. They identified him from a driver's license and a DNA match to a severed arm discovered amid the wreckage of his recently rented inexpensive room.

Nine others were injured in the powerful explosion, and city officials ordered the five-story building to be dismantled because its structure could collapse. Police on Oct. 11 said they were hunting two suspects. Amporn Jaikorn, 49, allegedly appeared in the building's closed-circuit security video when she and a man, Kasi Ditthanarat, 48, visited the building, apparently to meet Samai, police said.

Jaikorn was described as a Red Shirt supporter from Chiang Mai, while Kasi comes from Narathiwat province in Thailand's violent, Muslim-majority south, raising suspicions that bombers may also be sourcing their explosives from the region, where the military has been unable to crush minority Muslim ethnic Malay-Thai insurgents, in a murky war that has killed more than 4,000 people on all sides since 2004.

It was unclear, however, if that proved a first-ever public link between the mostly Buddhist, nationalistic Reds who are based in Thailand's north and northeast, and minority southern separatists who frequently build bombs in their fight for an Islamist homeland.

Despite the evidence of Red Shirt involvement in the Nonthaburi incident, the Red Shirts and their supporters portray Bangkok's bombings as a shameless conspiracy by the government to entrench the military, justify the government's ongoing state of emergency decree, and smear innocent Reds.

"The government is addicted to the power of the emergency decree," said opposition Puea Thai Party spokesman Prompong Nopparit. The emergency decree gives officials sweeping powers to seize and imprison people, curtail free expression and political assemblies, and grants immunity from prosecution for officials under its scope.

The Puea Thai Party and the Reds, who wear symbolic crimson clothing, want to reverse a 2006 military coup and have a nationwide election to restore toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is an international fugitive based mostly in Dubai, dodging a two-year jail sentence for corruption.

The Red Shirts are officially known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), but a hard-line wing named Red Siam earlier broke away, reportedly to pursue "a true revolution." It is unclear, however, who staged most of the bomb attacks or if they are by diverse individuals.

"It's not right in my face, but I'm of course scared," said one executive. "I think if people see something funny, or weird, they should tell an officer."

Unable to stop the assaults, officials express strained hopes.

"I would like to thank the people for staying alert and cooperating with police following the recent bombings," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in his weekly broadcast on Oct. 10. "If everyone works together, the situation will be restored soon."

In September, the prime minister was similarly unable to protect his citizens and said: "Many people, including myself, have assessed the situation and decided we will have to be more cautious over the next two weeks."

Others are nervous about the possibility of yet another military coup in a country which suffered more than 18 successful and attempted putsches since the 1930s.

"I will try to step back from politics, be clear of it, and leave it with the government so that soldiers can do their military work," declared Army Chief Prayuth who is widely regarded as a staunchly anti-Red, anti-Thaksin hawk. "But if the nation has not returned to order, the military -- as a mechanism of the government -- must help build order first."

Prayuth was promoted to the military's top slot on Oct. 1 after helping to stage the 2006 coup.

As reported by Asia Sentinel on Feb. 17, the Thai military's bomb hunting abilities and priorities were exposed when it spent more than US$24 million on hundreds of empty plastic boxes -- each with a toy antenna sticking out -- and used them from 2007 to 2010 as bomb detectors in the south and elsewhere, despite officials denouncing the British devices as a corruption hoax.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com