The Bangkok Bombing Blame Game
Thailand's military junta has promised to restore stability and security, but the devastating attack in central Bangkok could provoke dangerous overreaction.
The horrific bombing that took place on Aug. 17 at the height of the busy Bangkok evening rush hour is a harsh reminder that all is still not quite well in Thailand. The blast tore through a segment of downtown’s Ratchaprasong intersection, a major tourist thoroughfare. The improvised explosive device — a 6-pound pipe bomb — was placed in the vicinity of Erawan Shrine, a popular shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma but also frequented by Buddhist devotees from Thailand and across the Southeast Asian region, and was detonated remotely. The Ratchaprasong area itself is famed for its five-star hotels and upscale shopping malls. Significantly, it was also the site of massive anti-government rallies in 2010 and 2014. The bomb claimed the lives of 20 people and injured more than 100 — an isolated act of violence but one of the most serious in recent years.
Amid intense speculation as to the identity of the perpetrator and accomplices — and in the absence of any forensic evidence that has been made public — it is unclear how much actual headway has been made in investigations. Thus far, a few photos of a possible suspect, captured on closed-circuit television in the vicinity of the shrine, have been released to the public. An arrest warrant has also been issued for the person; two suspects who appeared on video nearby have been questioned and subsequently released. But regardless of who the bomber is, the attack itself calls into question the fundamental premise on which the military junta’s legitimacy has been based since the coup of May 2014: the return of security and stability.
The last half-decade has seen difficult years for Thailand insofar as political conflicts are concerned. In 2004, a dormant insurgency in Thailand’s southernmost border provinces was reignited. Waged by insurgents from the region’s ethnic Malay communities, the armed insurgency has dragged on for more than a decade as successive Thai governments have tried — and failed — to stem the violence. Notably however, that insurgency has remained contained to the provinces.
Meanwhile, up in Bangkok, tensions between elements of the aristocracy and military leadership and supporters of populist then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra spilled into the streets, culminating in a military coup in September 2006 that removed from power Thaksin, the billionaire former police officer and media tycoon. Yet despite the prime minister’s removal, the promulgation of a new constitution, and efforts by the coup plotters to further curb Thaksin’s lingering influence and popularity, successive elections continued to return pro-Thaksin governments to power, the most notable of which was led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Further street protests ensued and violent clashes took place between government and opposition supporters, including the use of grenades and improvised explosive devices (albeit with yields much lower than what was witnessed on Monday).
With Thai politics in the throes of a tailspin, Prime Minister Yingluck was removed via another military coup in May 2014, the 19th such attempt in Thailand since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Explaining the rationale for the coup, the country’s junta leader and current prime minister, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, described it as necessary “in order for the country to return to normal quickly.”
A year after the coup, the military junta claimed to have restored order, security, and stability to the country. Prima facie, this appeared to be true. Street protests were reduced to a trickle, while Thaksin acolytes and supporters — popularly known as the “Red Shirts” — appeared to have been sidelined, disarmed, and de-mobilized. This stability has come at a cost. Martial law was declared (it was eventually lifted 10 months after the coup), civil liberties curtailed, opposition suppressed, and the legal reach of the state extended. To those who accused him of being undemocratic, Gen. Prayuth defiantly retorted at a press conference on March 23: “Our country has seen so much trouble because we have had too much democracy.”
According to the junta then, their legitimacy rests not on popular elections or the purveying of democratic freedoms (though they claim that elections are forthcoming, and Prayuth has declared the junta’s commitment to a “road map to democracy”), but on their claim to provide stability and security. It is in this light that the Bangkok bombing needs to be viewed.
In the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 17 bombing, the preoccupation has been with the identity of those who perpetrated the heinous act. Most of this attention has focused on three possibilities: insurgents hitherto confined in the southern provinces but who may have decided to expand their theater of operations; international Islamist terrorist groups and networks intent on indiscriminate violence against civilians; or political opponents of the military junta.
While there are plausible reasons behind all three possibilities, there are equally compelling reasons to be skeptical. If southern insurgents, why have they now decided to expand their operations to Bangkok, after deliberately restraining themselves for so long? If terrorists linked to al Qaeda or the Islamic State, why did they chose detonation by remote rather than a suicide attack, which has been the tactical hallmark of these terrorist groups, especially in urban areas? And if intelligence officials are to be believed, why was there evidently no prior chatter among these groups that focused on Thailand? If the Red Shirts, why would they deliberately attack a religious shrine knowing that such a move would almost certainly discredit them in this predominantly Buddhist country? (Adding to the confusion is the identity of the primary suspect caught on CCTV, who appears to be a foreigner.)
The identity of the perpetrators will be the subject of considerable debate in the days and weeks to come. But regardless, the bombing poses considerable challenges for the military junta in the here and now.
A threshold has been crossed with this single, unprecedented act of terrorist violence against innocent civilians, many of whom were foreigners. A mood of anxiety and uncertainty has crept across the city, exacerbated by a second bomb that was apparently thrown off the Taksin Bridge into the Chao Phraya River the day after. While the immediate fallout from the Bangkok bombing will doubtless be economic, the attack poses significant challenges for the government as it seeks to respond in a way that would restore the confidence of the people. So, what will be the junta’s political response?
Arguably, the most convenient move they can make is to blame the attacks on political opponents. Given the contradictory statements that members of the junta have been issuing, it is difficult to determine the extent to which they would pursue this. Nevertheless, if the junta’s statements and actions in the immediate aftermath of the coup offer a window into their thinking, the temptation might be to further perpetuate the narrative that they are defending the country from enemies within who are intent on destabilizing Thailand. By that logic, the strong government that the junta claims to provide would be all the more necessary, if not urgent, given the political uncertainties that would accompany such an attempt at alleged sedition. Indeed, there are already quiet concerns circulating in certain quarters that the junta might be drawn into overreaction, especially given the resoluteness with which martial law was enforced immediately after the coup was launched.
But this poses course of action poses dangers, too, not the least of which is to the pursuit of the truth. While bombs have indeed been used in the course of political conflagrations between both parties in recent years, none have been of the magnitude of the Aug. 17 attack. Second, it would be plain foolish for the Red Shirts — even rogue elements within the movement — to attack a religious shrine. Third, given prevailing skepticism toward stuttering attempts to promulgate a new constitution and to create favorable conditions for popular elections, further actions that might entail the curtailing of freedoms would likely have negative repercussions on the legitimacy of the junta in the eyes of the population.
In their own words, the very premise of the military junta’s legitimacy has been its claim to have restored security and stability to a country rocked by several years of massive street protests and political violence. The Bangkok bombing poses a direct challenge to this claim. Although the junta’s response to the bombing so far has been restrained, the danger that it might be drawn into a blame game, which might eventually lead to a witch hunt against political opponents, remains, unfortunately, real. This course of action should also be avoided at all costs, for it would mark an unfortunate and unnecessary deepening of an already alarming polarization of Thai society, the portents of which would be exceedingly disconcerting.
CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images