Koh Samui Bombing Points to Confusion Under Junta

The authoritarian posture of Thailand’s military regime led by General-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is obvious enough, going further than its numerous predecessors in muzzling the media and suppressing opponents. The military and police are also more in daily evidence.

Yet it is still just a thin and potentially brittle crust over a society that is factionalized in many ways and not just between forces that are divided between former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the government. A good illustration is the number of almost equally plausible theories that have surfaced about who was responsible for the April 10 car bombing at the Central Festival mall car park on the resort island of Koh Samui; numerous cars were damaged and seven people were injured including a 12-year-old Italian child.

The official who should be closest to identifying the culprits only added to the confusion. National police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang told the media on April 15 that some well-known southern politicians were suspected of aiding the bombers. But which politicians? And why?

Some media jumped to the conclusion that this was a reference to aggrieved pro-Thaksin former members of parliament eager to stir trouble. Indeed this interpretation was in line with various government and military spokesmen who claimed there was a link to earlier small bomb blasts in Bangkok that were attributed to pro-Thaksin Red Shirts.

Somyot's explanation indeed seemed odd. The Thaksin camp is very weak in the south, where electoral politics has long been dominated by the pro-government Democrat Party. So were local political figures stirring trouble, perhaps aggrieved that the military takeover had deprived them of the largesse they had been collecting? Somyot himself, having mentioned “southern politicians,” was not ruling out other motives.

Deputy Police Chief Chakthip Chaijinda was barely any more precise, referring to a recent gathering of an unnamed southern political group, which he deemed possibly suspicious, and implying that there was a political motive of some sort.

Maybe, but it doesn’t get the observer much closer to the truth. Southern Malay-Muslim separatists remain one possibility since the car used in the bombing had been stolen in Yala, in the rebellious south. Several of the security guards at Central Festival apparently came from the deep south so were immediately suspect.

Maj Gen Kueakul Intaranachak, commander of the Surat Thani Military District, said five security guards on duty on the night of the explosion are currently being held for questioning.

But some police suggest a rebel connection is a false lead. It would be a major shift for the separatists to take their bombing campaign from their own area to a tourist resort and hence threaten a major Thai industry only now recovering slowly from the pre-coup mayhem led by anti-Thaksin politicians.

The leader of those protests, politician-turned-Buddhist-monk Suthep Thaugsuban, has accused Thaksin and his supporters of instigating the attack. Thaksin responded on Twitter, in his first public comment in months, to call Suthep a liar.

The other possibility being discussed is that elements in and around the military want to sustain a sense of tension to prolong Prayuth’s rule and delay progress even on the very limited form of democracy being offered by the constitution now being drafted.

Finally there is the possibility of a local motive related to business or even worker grievances at Central Festival Samui. This is the leading shopping complex on the island and is owned by the Central group – whose CentralWorld store was burned down during the 2010 demonstrations in Bangkok. At the time of the Samui blast a mysterious fire occurred at a food court in Surat Thani on the mainland close to Samui. Most likely this was just coincidence but it adds to the list of plot theories.

This mixture of theories is indicative of the confusion that feeds on rumor in a society with a censored media. Even if the case is eventually pronounced “solved,” alternative theories will likely live on. Prayuth is finding out the hard way that the iron fist may not work well to control Thai reality.