Site of the Erawan Shrine bombing, Bangkok. Lillian Suwanrumpha/Demotix. All rights reserved.More than a week after Bangkok was rocked by what the Prime Minister called “the worst incident that has ever happened in Thailand”, in which at least 22 people lost their lives and scores were injured after a remotely detonated 3kg pipe bomb went off at a popular Hindu shrine, the country’s authorities are getting nowhere close to solving the whys and whos behind the attack. Caught between sprawling governmental corruption, lack of “CSI technology”, broken CCTV cameras, the absence of any claim of responsibility for the bombing, and armed with only a blurry image of a yellow-shirted male suspect lingering around the Erawan shrine, the Royal Thai Police (RTP) have little to go on. These inherent ambiguities raise significant obstacles to unravelling the implications of the attack, which means that until the RTP uncovers more clues analysts should tread carefully.
Bombings and terrorist attacks have a long history in Thailand, a country that has for decades dealt with two main sources of violence: a bloody separatist insurgency in the Malay-Muslim southernmost Pattani province, and political upheavals stemming from innumerable coups and decades of military rule. What is different about this attack though is the fact that it targeted Bangkok, a city that had so far remained almost unscathed from the strings of attacks rocking the country’s restive deep south. There, at least 50 improvised explosive devices were detonated or defused in May of this year and several pipe bombs were used in 2015. This year’s biggest attack had been a car bomb that wounded seven people when it went off in April on the island of Koh Samui. In Bangkok, no casualties were recorded when two pipe bombs exploded outside a luxury shopping mall in early February, in this year’s previously most significant attack in the Thai capital.
According to analysts, the 17 August bombing could have been perpetrated either by anti-government radicals, Muslim extremists fighting for autonomy, renegade elements from the country’s powerful military or even by outside actors (such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Turkey’s ultranationalist Grey Wolves, or regional groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah). However, judging from the scarce information available there are serious issues with almost every theory.
The fact that no outside actor has claimed responsibility, coupled with Thailand’s lack of appeal for international terrorists, and the modus operandi used (the lack of suicide bombers) largely disqualify the involvement of jihadi organizations. The Malay separatists from the south, who have been waging a low-level insurgency against the government for more than 50 years, have never strayed away from their immediate region for fear of eliciting a heavy-handed government response. The so-called Red Shirts (supporters of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her equally ousted brother Thaksin) would stand to win nothing from targeting civilians and would have sought to attack government buildings instead. There’s equally scant evidence that the military was involved.
Soldiers on the streets during the May 2014 coup. punloph/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Whatever the nature of the attacker, the short-term effects will be the same: the Thai military junta, in power since last year’s coup, will continue down the same road of eroding the country’s democratic liberties in the name of ensuring stability and security. The claims of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army general who came to power in May 2014 after ousting the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, to restore Thailand’s democracy will become even murkier.
The ruling junta has already pushed back the date for democratic elections repeatedly, ostensibly to give it more time to prepare for a constitutional referendum or work towards greater stability before holding an election. However, it is more likely that the delay is to give the junta enough time to eliminate the Shinawatra family from politics completely and ban the leaders of Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party from running for office. Prime Minister Prayuth — under the controversial Article 44 — retains absolute power over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government, giving him unchecked power while internal reforms are underway. According to a new law enacted just days before the Bangkok bombings, protesting in front of Thailand’s Parliament could land you a one-year trip to jail.
Complicating everything is the fact that the country's revered monarch, H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is old and frail. The present King, reigning since 1946, enjoys tremendous moral authority on all sides, and has used his influence in the past to bring order out of the chaos. However, the heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, enjoys no such universal respect, and the monarchy may lose its influence when the King passes away. The Thai military-controlled government is highly motivated to remain in control when that transition occurs, adding one more element to the complicated equation of Thai politics.
Thailand is also under the lens of the international community, after the US State Department issued a scathing report on the country’s human trafficking record. Alongside 23 other countries, Thailand is listed as a ‘Tier 3’ violator in the same company as North Korea, Iran, Libya and other regimes often viewed as far more anti-democratic than Thailand. The State Department report suggests that Thailand's labour abuses are persistent and ignored by the government, and specifically highlights workers’ rights violations in Thailand's seafood industry.
Such abuses have been widely documented, with a recent Associated Press series tracking the supply chain of US retailers to Thai processors selling seafood provided by fishing boats manned by slave labour. The State Department now has 90 days at its disposal to decide whether to enact sanctions. Predictably, Prayuth and his government protested the report’s “uninformed” assessment, and denounced it in an embassy statement from Washington that highlighted progress in the Thai effort to address human trafficking.
The European Union has equally been critical of Bangkok. In April, the European Commission put Thailand on a formal notice for its insufficient reforms in tackling illegal fishing — just one step away short of imposing a ban on all Thai fisheries imports to the Union. The country could lose between €575 and €730 million were a ban imposed.
Redshirt protest, September 2010. Ratchaprasong/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Prayuth’s government has galvanized inter-community tensions and has put Thailand’s economy in a fragile situation, two ingredients that could plunge the country even deeper into chaos. Irrespective of the nature of the Bangkok terrorist attack, all the challenges facing Thai society, whether upticks in violence or dwindling economic fortunes, will be met by the junta with more repression — give a man a hammer and all the problems will be treated like nails. As such, it takes a special kind of naivety to assume that Thailand’s junta intends to pass the baton to a democratic government, and if anything, the Bangkok bombing provides more reasons for Prayuth to delay elections even further. Without stronger involvement from western leaders, expect more human rights abuses coming from the ‘Land of Smiles’.