Thailand’s Bombing Mystery Gets Murkier

Although Thailand’s junta leaders have been generally praised by the local press in the wake of the bombings that rocked Bangkok's peaceful ambiance at the start of the year, concerns are growing about their competence in the wake of contradictory statements and a seeming lack of political, economic and law enforcement direction.

Contending forces appear to be emerging across a wide range of the power structure including within the police and military. Some political analysts are also theorizing that the bombings, which took the lives of three and injured nearly 30, could be the manifestations of a power struggle within the junta that took power after pushing deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power.

Certainly, there were conflicting statements aplenty Wednesday from the military junta and the country's appointed civilian leaders. Although General Saprang Kanlayanamitr, a leading junta member, told reporters that the "evidence and intelligence information proves that the bombs were the dirty work of politicians who lost power and benefit. Some bad soldiers loyal to the bad politicians collaborated with them with the intention to topple this government," an hour or so later that statement was contradicted by military-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont.

"The investigation has not progressed at all," Surayud told reporters after the weekly cabinet meeting. "I will discuss this with the appropriate officials, including the National Police Office and the Internal Security Operation Command (Isoc)…. As of now, there's no evidence to bring the perpetrators for prosecution."

Any evidence that may exist is not available to the public at large, which has frustrated a public yearning for answers. Then again, pundits don't expect any answers anytime soon, particularly since the junta has failed to levy any formal charges against deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra three months after seizing power despite plenty of allegations of widespread corruption.

"It's not good to make allegations without hard evidence," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who heads the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University. "It sounds like what Thaksin would've done, to quickly pinpoint culpability. I don't think you can draw conclusions on anything. But people want answers quickly."

Answers seem unlikely to come quickly from the police investigation. Jeth Mongkholhatthi, a top official with the Bangkok Metropolitan Police, told reporters Wednesday police have failed to come up with leads after questioning victims and witnesses. "There is no eyewitness in this case and the footage from closed-circuit television is not clear. So police have not found any suspects," Jeth said, according to news reports.

Bangkok is still very much on edge. Anonymous callers made bomb threats on Wednesday against a school and The Nation, a leading English-language daily. Other seemingly suspicious packages were found at high-end shopping malls Central Lad Phrao and Gaysorn Plaza. The typical opaque nature of Thai politics and infighting among military and police has many thinking this mystery may never be solved. That would fit with many other conundrums in Thailand over the past few years, from the daily killings in the Muslim south to murdered human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit to the small bombs planted in Bangkok last year to the failed assassination attempt on Thaksin a few weeks before the September 19 coup.

Things are further confused by the fact that quite a number of groups have a motive to undermine the unelected military government and see it pushed from power. For sure, the list seems to grow by the day. In addition to the southern insurgents, who have killed more than 1,800 fellow Thais in the past two years, the usual suspects would be those who the coupmakers deposed or sidelined: Thaksin, Thai Rak Thai lawmakers, loyal army generals, loyal police officials, loyal bureaucrats. Then there are those who have been hurt by the generals after they seized power: pro-democracy student activists, farmers who have seen subsidies taken away, businessmen who saw their portfolios diminish after the central bank imposed capital controls, and Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a former army commander and Thaksin defense minister, who turned on the coupmakers after his allies failed to secure lucrative positions in the new government.

Any one of these groups, or a combination of several, could logically have reasons to strike. In large part due to statements by Surayud and the junta leaders, speculation that southern insurgents have shifted their deadly campaign to Bangkok has been pushed aside.

Despite the similarities—coordinated attacks, deadly bombs, no claim of responsibility—the differences—type of explosive device, use of digital watches as triggers instead of cell phones, not enough casualties—have won over many analysts. Thus, the spotlight is now shining on the shadowy elements within the police and armed forces that may have the capability and motive to pull off such a caper. Of these the most interesting theories appear to revolve around the actions of Chavalit, the planned restructuring of the police force and a power struggle within the junta itself.

Junta member Saprang made a thinly disguised reference to Chavalit in his comments on Wednesday, claiming the bombers had "used an old soldier to launch a war of words against the government and the (council)." The 75-year-old Chavalit served as army commander-in-chief in the late 1980s and prime minister for a brief period in 1997, when his cabinet floated the baht and ushered in the Asian financial crisis.

When Thaksin came to power in 2001, Chavalit came aboard and served as defense minister for a few years. Then he left the government, and adeptly managed to cozy up to the royalist military factions that launched the coup. When Prem Tinsulanonda, president of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's privy council and a respected former prime minister and army commander, gave a speech in July that many saw as giving the green light for a coup to take place, Chavalit stood on stage with Prem, coup leader Sonthi and military appointed premier Surayud.

But the spoils of victory were not shared with Chavalit, and he lashed back. At first, the former general enlisted Chanapat Na Nakhon, a former member of his now-defunct New Aspiration Party, to lead anti-coup protests against the generals. Then in November, he blasted the junta for taking lavish positions on the boards of state enterprises, and called on them to let Thaksin back in the country. The public tit-for-tat resulted in an awkward face saving meeting with Sonthi and other coup leaders.

Lately, Chavalit has been mentioned as a potential candidate to replace Thaksin atop Thai Rak Thai. Press reports also link him as the prime mover behind allegations that Surayud illegally purchased land in a forest reserve. Besides that, the coup leaders may want to pounce on whispers that Chavalit met with Thaksin last month when he paid a visit to China. Many discount this theory, including the prime minister himself.

In a faxed open letter from Beijing distributed to reporters on Tuesday, Thaksin wrote: "I strongly condemn this act (of bombing) and I swear that I never ever think of hurting the people and destroying the country's credibility for my own political gain…. Even during the time of political conflicts, when people who lost influence and those who were deceived by false information tried to topple my government, I did not resort to the use of force."

Members of anti-coup groups also strongly question the generals' presumption that Thaksin may be directly linked to the bombings. "Chavalit works for Chavalit only," said a member of the anti-coup group White Dove who knows Chanapat. "Thaksin could just sit back and watch this government crumble. They are incompetent. They don't need help from us to make them look bad."

Speculation is also resting on certain elements of the police force. As a former police lieutenant colonel, Thaksin found widespread support in the notoriously force. Immediately after he was kicked out, however, Surayud embarked on an ambitious campaign to reform the Royal Thai Police. A key part of this plan is to decentralize the force to be under the control of provincial governors, and be held accountable by civilian boards.

Top police officials immediately blasted the proposal. "Please, don't treat the police organization with contempt. Give us some respect," Pol Lt-Gen Achirawit Suphanphesat, spokesman of the national police office, told reporters in mid-November. "The day we are transferred to local organizations, the country will go up in flames."

Whether the spokesman meant that literally is unclear, although the distaste for the measures is clear. They come as the army widely expands control of Isoc, which could end up putting the police directly under the control of the military.

"The police are always suspects," Chulalongkorn's Thitinan said. "We are engaging in speculation, which I don't like to do, but one could say that the theory that this was an inside job by disaffected military or disaffected police has great weight."

Besides Chavalit and pro-Thaksin elements of the police or military, analysts are also tossing around the possibility that the bombings may signal a power struggle within the junta. Some members of the self-styled Council for National Security, such as leader Sonthi, appear content just pushing Thaksin out of power. Other leading members, however, such as Saprang, are said to want the junta to completely take down the former prime minister, and change the rules so a strong premier can never rise again.

Saprang has positioned himself to succeed Sonthi as military leader when the latter retires next October. Diplomats have described him as leading a "holier-than-thou" clique of generals who want to destroy Thaksin completely.

Indeed, Saprang has expressed himself far more eloquently than the other generals. And his talk of "good" vs "evil" is reminiscent of US President George W. Bush in his perpetual War on Terror.

"We're sincere," Saprang told The Nation newspaper last month. "If there hadn't been a calamity on the way, we wouldn't have [staged the coup]. We only wanted to defend our motherland, the monarchy and the public interest. We believed that dharma should prevail: that good should subordinate evil, courage should overcome fear."

But Saprang may face a tough challenge for the job from Anupong Paochinda, the First Army chief who proved essentially in securing Bangkok on September 19. The Bangkok Post reported in October that Sonthi was grooming Anupong to be his successor by giving him responsibilities over logistics, a greater task than had been assigned to Saprang.

"At stake is the post of army chief," said a former lawmaker from Thaksin's ruling party who is familiar with the junta members. "Anupong is seen as the real force behind the coup. Saprang is more vocal, but he has no real base. The only way he could be seen as a

promising leader is by pushing the country to the brink."

Again, the truth may never present itself. But the many intermingling subplots have perplexed even the most knowledgeable Thailand watchers. While Bangkok's chattering classes may disagree on whodunit, they are near unanimous in saying things will get worse before they get better.

"This year will be a continuation of last year," Thitinan said. "But the stakes are higher."