Small Blasts in Bangkok Could Herald Stiffening Resistance

The peace and order supposedly guaranteed by Thai Army Chief-cum-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is increasing danger of coming to an end, with two small bomb blasts in Bangkok in recent weeks. The latest occurred Saturday night with a grenade attack on the Criminal Court, which did little damage and left no injuries.

Twin pipe bombs were exploded outside a Bangkok shopping mall in February, slightly injuring two persons. Police detained two individuals Saturday night in the latest attack, accusing them of being connected to Red Shirt sympathizers of the Pheu Thai government headed by former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that was ousted last May 22 by a coup led by Prayuth. The former general told reporters that "The perpetrators want to create panic and chaos... in order to make the public aware that they still exist."

But despite impressions of relative calm, the fact is that the coup and the military crackdown have done nothing to solve the deep divisions in Thai society despite a near-universal belief among Bangkok’s royalists and elites that removing all vestiges of the political dynasty of billionaire politician Thaksin Shinawatra would deflate all protest and send the rural poor back to their farmlands. Neutral observers in Thailand have long been waiting for trouble to start in the wake of the army coup, the most extensive crackdown since the 1932 putsch that ended the absolute monarchy.

As Asia Sentinel reported on Feb. 12, the royalist elite, represented by the Yellow Shirts – the People’s Alliance for Democracy and the military – may have gone too far in their attempt to guarantee that the rural Red Shirts and backers of the Shinawatra dynasty never hold power again. There has been deepening concern that emasculating the opposition Red Shirts so completely would ultimately delay a final reckoning with them. Driving them from power in the intervening years after the 2006 coup that ended Thaksin’s premiership eventually culminated in bloody riots that took at least 95 lives, most of them Red Shirt followers, in May of 2010 and left the center of Bangkok on fire.

While Prayuth has promised elections for 2016, leaks involving the actions of the committee writing a new constitution for the country have clearly indicated that the new charter is designed to make sure that allies of the Thaksin forces would be permanently neutralized. The army-chosen National Legislative Assembly is due to deliberate on the new document next month. There is little hope that it would deliver a charter to allow credible elections. Many believe that is possibly the spark that would bring the Red Shirts back to the streets.

The Red Shirts themselves have been remarkably quiescent in the face of an overwhelming military presence across the country. However, tensions have been rising slowly, partly because of the decision by the National Legislative Council to impeach Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, the prime minister of the ill-fated Pheu Thai government, despite the fact that the government she headed no longer existed, and then for a corruption court to charge her with corruption in connection with an ill-starred rice subsidy scheme designed to pay farmers far in excess of market rates, costing the Thai treasury billions of dollars.

The situation with Yingluck is being closely watched to see if any of the millions of followers of her brother from the impoverished northeast of the country who benefited from social programs and economic aid would take action. When she faced impeachment, 500 police and 300 soldiers were on hand to make sure no protest got out of hand, although thoroughly cowed or disillusioned supporters stayed away.

Yingluck, first thought of as a mere ventriloquist’s dummy for her brother, turned out to be a relatively adroit politician in her own right, extending her popularity well beyond the red shirt base, cementing an impression that she was someone who could win election after election, to the despair of the military and the Democratic Party, which represents the Bangkok elite power base but which has never won an outright parliamentary majority

Given the massed army and police units ready to pounce, even muted rebellion has been difficult. Some 22 military courts have been established across the country to try anybody who exhibits any rebellious tendencies, it would be a one way ticket to trouble and trials for those who act.

Prayuth and the army have engineered a shutdown of all protest that simply does not allow for any dissent. Journalists and academics have been called in and intimidated. More than 600 Red Shirts or other dissidents have been warned, with 135 of them turned over to military courts. Thaksin’s chief lieutenants have either been driven out of the country or otherwise neutralized. Martial law remains in place, nine months after the coup. The draconian lese majesté law and an equally tough computer crimes act have stilled all criticism of the government. In fact the computer crimes act is being stiffened with even stricter elements.

Police General Somyot Poompanmoung told reporters that the weekend blast was the work of what he called the "same network of people" responsible for the twin pipe bombs that exploded last month; "I think there are many groups attempting to do a similar thing," Somyot told reporters, vowing to arrest anyone linked to the group.

Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan, however, one of the few who remains in public view, dismissed attempts to link the bombers to his group, saying they intend to remain nonviolent.

"We are not involved. It would be a disadvantage to us... no one is that stupid," he said on his daily television program.