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Bombs of Bangkok

by Anne Holmes

Thailand was ushered into 2007 with a rather unsavory surprise this New Years Eve. Just as the sun was going down, three bombs detonated at various key points around the city, killing 2 and injuring several others. I had barely donned my end of the year threads when the phone rang with the tip off. I made a call to a journalist friend of mine, but it was news to him. He made a call to the BBC, and no one in their offices had heard a thing. And yet, the bombs had exploded more than an hour before. “That’s strange,” he said. “It should only take a few minutes.” Seconds later, my Lebanese neighbor popped in with a long face to say the Saudi embassy had called to tell him to stay home. More bombs were probably coming, and I figured midnight would be the hour of choice.

All the city’s major outdoor celebrations were cancelled. This sort of violence is nearly unheard of in the nation’s capital, and it didn’t take much to scare people back into their homes. The streets were virtually empty as I made my way to Soukhumvit to celebrate with friends at Bed Supperclub, despite the dour announcement. I checked my camera gear and phone with the staff. I had already sent a message to all my contacts, telling of the news and letting everyone know I was okay. Now, it was time to dance. But by the time I got in a taxi heading home, there were 30 missed calls. I knew something was up.
As soon as I managed to get my key in the door, I ran straight for my laptop to discover that two more bombs had gone off at midnight near Central World, where a massive countdown celebration had thankfully been cancelled. Still, 11 sustained injuries. A third bomb was located and diffused at Suan Lum Night Bazaar and there were reports of a fourth having been located at Buddy Bar on Kao San Road, though the details are vague regarding the latter incident. In all, the death toll stands at 3, with 43 injuries, some of which are quite severe. 18 victims remained in hospital at the time of writing this article.
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Thailand’s September 19 putsch put Bangkok in the headlines, baffling Thais and the rest of the world alike with its smooth, bloodless overthrow. Pictures of civilians handing flowers to the military abounded, and the only major order decreed to the troops within the first week of the takeover was to smile more. A friend who visits Thailand twice a year for business sent a mail from Geneva noting how cute, how “Thai” the coup was. But things are rarely as serene as they appear on the surface in Thailand, and it was only a matter of time before they took a different turn.

There are those who fear the military has its eyes on returning the country to stratocracy. Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin scoffed at the idea at a press conference Monday afternoon, but Thailand has a long history of struggle in this department as it tries to gain democratic footing. Just one month ago martial law was lifted in Bangkok, but it remains in 35 of 76 provinces.

Anti-coup groups accused the interim government, dubbed the Council for National Security (CNS), of “staging” the attacks in order to reinstate martial law, but this notion is unconvincing, given the economic impact the incidents will have, slowing tourism and giving a bad name to the land of smiles. Analysts expect the stock index to fall on Wednesday when the market reopens after the New Year holiday; a big slap in the face just as the Thai Baht was reaching an all-time high since the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

One of the factors in staging the September coup was the fear that mounting attacks in the south would deter tourism, which accounts for up to 12% of the GDP, and 9% of jobs. Just days after a Canadian tourist died in a bomb blast in Hat Yai, tanks rolled into Bangkok, toppling Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party.

The separatist Islamist insurgency in the southern Pattani region has at times threatened to spill over into Bangkok, and saw a marked increase in violence with Thaksin’s rise to power in 2001. While the vast majority of rural Thailand was in his favor, the southern provinces were the exception, and Thaksin regarded this area as enemy territory. The Tak Bai incident in October of 2004 set the tone, when 78 suspected rebels suffocated after the army threw several hundred men, hands bound, into a truck for transport. Thaksin defended the military’s actions, stating that the men died because they were already weak from fasting for Ramadan. This incensed the rebels, breeding yet more unrest in a region that is making a bid for independent Muslim law. Incidents of violence occur almost daily in the south now, but so far, no evidence seems to suggest the Bangkok bombings are the work of Islamic rebels.

Early Monday morning, fingers were being pointed in the direction of ousted PM Thaksin, who resurfaced in China last week. There was talk of seizing his assets to prevent any possible further funding of violence from within his camp, should he and other ousted party members be the culprits. It is possible that he is behind the attacks, but it is also rather advantageous for the military to completely nullify him as a public figure. Thaksin still enjoys considerable public support. According to a recent poll, he is ranked second, at 24%, for man of the year. It would be convenient for the CNS to lay the blame on the ousted PM, putting an end to lingering popularity in the provinces and thus legitimizing the junta’s interim government, as they come in to defend the Thai people against the big, bad “Thugsin,” as he is often called.

An insider job, or an anti-coup movement, perhaps even within the police force could be a possible scenario. Detection of M4 in all the bombs, officially a controlled substance, lends some weight to this theory. But the CNS would be reluctant to admit its grasp on power is so shaky. Dissent from within would not only make them look bad, but it would also put the security situation in serious jeopardy, possibly giving rise to a wave of reactionary violence and chaos amid the streets of Bangkok.

The CNS has failed to gain public approval and is seen to be faltering, with little action to prove its true aims. Even those who supported ousting Thaksin have little faith in the CNS’s ability to restore democracy and order in the post-coup power struggle. Many worry that civil liberties and popular sovereignty will suffer permanent losses as the military-appointed government drafts the new constitution.

It is still not clear when Thaskin will be allowed to return to his homeland to defend himself in the financial scandal that led to his deposition, and many suspect the ousted prime minister has hopes of regaining power. His sudden reappearance in Asia in the advent of the bombings, after months of exile in London, certainly sets the stage, however, for a bona fide Thai political drama.

For a timeline of the events leading to the September 19 coup click here.

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2 Responses to “Bombs of Bangkok”

  1. admin says:

    Hey Charlie! So happy to hear from you. But why won’t you tell me what you think!? Great discussion we had the other night.

    I think they made the right decision on the party disolutions case. I think if no one got punished, it would be bad because people would not feel there was any justice being served. If they had disolved all parties, it would seem to say that the CNS is really about dictatorship. The way things are now, the people will have to reorganize and the corrupt leaders will have less power to direct them. However, I think this decision lays a clear path for Abhisit to take the lead, and since I know very little about him and his affiliations at the moment, I can’t say whether this will be good or bad for Thailand. But let’s wait and see how the Thaksin camp reacts.

    Anyway, it was an interesting time. It’s rare that so many Thai people come out and speak of politics, and so it was great for me to be able to have these sorts of discussions over the past few days with just about everyone I met. Now I am looking forward to the elections to see what people will have to say.

    Say hello to Smith and Em for me.

    Cheers!

  2. charlie says:

    so, what’s ur opinion on the verdict dissolving the party?

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