Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Behind the Bombings

HUA HIN, Thailand – I passed quickly through the crowded market next to the Victory Monument in downtown Bangkok, seeking the questionable safety of the elevated train next to it.

This capital landmark – though not one Thai in a thousand could tell you what victory it commemorates* – is a crossroads, the terminus of the shuttle van from Hua Hin and other places in Thailand.

It was here that one of the eight bombs that exploded in the capital on New Year’s eve went off. This is the first time I’ve ventured there since the bombings. The news papers said that the bombers avoided places where Western tourists and foreign expats congregate, but they were places where this expat frequents.

The bombs were deadly enough – three people were killed, a score or more injured – but they were not exactly in the Baghdad market buster league. Indeed, they seemed perfectly calibrated to instill fear without creating mass casualties. It was kind of a shot across the bow.

But whose shot? And whose bow? More than a week after the bombings that is still the unanswered question. So far no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Everyone in Thailand understands in his gut that the bombings were in some way connected with the September 19 coup d’etat that overthrew the five-year government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, installed a new administration and scrapped the 1997 constitution.

The coup was enthusiastically welcomed by the Bangkok elite and middle classes, who had grown thoroughly tired of Thaksin. It was seemingly tolerated in the rural areas where the former premier drew most of his political strength.

The new premier, Surayud Chulanont, enjoys the trust of Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol and for a time basked in high personal popularity. It seemed as if things had settled down. Then came the bombings.

There are basically two theories about the culprits and motivation for the attacks. A third, that it was an extension to the capital of the insurgency in the far south, is mainly discounted. No one believes they were connected to global jihadism.

One obvious explanation is that the bombs were the calling card of pro-Thaksin dead-enders, even though the ex-premier personally disavowed the bombings in a letter he wrote from Beijing.

This theory is somewhat bolstered by a string of mysterious arson attacks aimed at public schools in the country’s north and northeast, where Thaksin still has many supporters.

The second theory is that the bombings could be traced to elements in the army or police dissatisfied with the junta’s performance to date. In this respect, it might be seen as a kind of coup within a coup.

To their credit, the coup-makers have governed with a light hand and have worked hard to project an aura of normality. They lifted martial law in most places of the country. Until the bombings, soldiers were mostly invisible.

Small anti-coup, pro-democracy rallies, though technically illegal under the new regime, were tolerated. No supporters of the old regime have been jailed. The new PM, a retired general, goes out of his way to project the image of an avuncular uncle.

Nevertheless, the bloom has gone off the coup even among many who had welcomed it. In its first 100 days in power it seems that the junta hasn’t accomplished much. It has dragged its feet on investigating corruption in the Thaksin regime and bringing charges – supposedly the main justification for the coup.

The insurgency in the south still rages. A badly handled move to slow the rise of the local currency by imposing capital controls sent the stock market crashing. People are beginning to ask of the takeover: what was the point? If nothing else, one expects a military-led government to move decisively.

So the bombings could be seen as a warning – to the generals to get their act together or face the possibility of yet another coup, led by even more conservative factions in the governing elite who might want to rule more harshly.

Although it has become something of a cliché, there is considerable truth to the proposition that 2007 will be Thailand’s year of living dangerously.


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