Divided Thai nation vulnerable to violence on multiple fronts

Rumours are swirling around Bangkok about who’s behind the bombings, which make it even more unlikely democracy will be restored any time soon. EPA/Diego Azubel

As Thai police continue investigating the bombings at the Erawan Shrine and Sathorn pier in Bangkok, a number of theories are being canvassed about possible perpetrators and motives. Thai Police chief Somyot Pumpunmuang has said that it is possible both foreigners and Thai nationals may have been involved.

So far it has been ascertained that a pipe and TNT were used in the attacks. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has not confirmed it actually was a terrorist attack.

While it may take some time to understand the motives for the attack, when talking to people on the streets of Bangkok, as I have, it’s clear the bombings have naturally put the city in a state of heightened alert. Prayut has formed a “war room” of cabinet ministers and security agencies, and acknowledged the negative impact of the bombings on the Thai economy.

The government has already offered compensation to Thai nationals for those injured or the families of those killed in the attacks. It has been a swift response to a clear tragedy.

The acts of political violence perpetrated in Bangkok might easily be assumed by some to be an extension of the struggle between radical Islam and the West. But that would be a lazy analysis. Thailand has enough of its own political enemies, both internally and externally, that will likely be considered as the investigation continues.

Regime unlikely to restore democracy soon

Internally, Thailand is under military rule. There appears to be little prospect of democratic elections taking place any time within the next two years.

Security threats like the bombings may provide further reason to delay elections. One of the explanations given for the military seizing government in July 2014 was to quash the political violence between supporters of the then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Red Shirts) and opposition protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (Yellow Shirts). If this bombing were to be attributed to either group, then it could be perceived as ongoing political violence that may provide a catalyst for continued military rule.

Since the coup, Yingluck has been banned from entering politics for at least five years. Suthep has entered a Buddhist monastery. The Red and Yellow Shirt leaderships in the protests of 2014 have been sidelined.

However, Thailand remains divided along those lines. So the prospect of political violence still exists.

So far, Red and Yellow Shirt activists have not made any public comment about the bombings. It’s unlikely they want any of their comments to be misinterpreted or to be seen to have any involvement. This simply would not “win the hearts and minds” of Thais.

The average Thai person is tired of politically inspired violence and disruption to their daily lives. Many had viewed the military coup as an opportunity for the nation to find stability.

Separatist threat to the south

Another internal issue threatening security in Thailand is the ongoing struggle between the Thai government and the secession movement in the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. The dispute is essentially over southern Muslims seeking independence from Thailand.

The conflict has claimed many lives and the use of terrorist tactics is common. To date, most of the independence movement’s activities have been contained to the south of Thailand. However, it has on occasion spread terror into Songkhla province where propaganda literature has been distributed and a bombing of a shopping centre in Hat Yai in 2012 injured 354 and killed five.

In 1977, a separatist was blamed when Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok was bombed. There were also suggestions that the nine bombs exploded in Bangkok in 2006 were the responsibility of separatists. But those arrested were from the north of Thailand and no-one claimed responsibility.

The independence movement, while having links to Islam, is concerned with its separatist agenda. It does not seek to join the more global radical Islamist movements. It is essentially provincial.

Uyghur refugees also under suspicion

A more recent development for Thailand, which may have attracted terrorist reprisals, is its refugee arrangement with China to return Uyghur refugees. In July 2015, the government deported more than 100 back to China. The move was criticised by the United Nations and US.

A rumour that is spreading on social media in Thailand and China is that supporters of the Uyghurs may have had some involvement in the bombings. However, to date the Uyghurs have not committed any acts of terrorism outside of China, but they have used explosives in previous terrorist attacks.

In 2007, Chinese security forces raided a terrorist training camp in Xiniang and reported finding evidence that the Uyghurs had developed international networks. If the Uyghurs are involved, then this would represent an evolution in their operations.

Thailand has never been immune from terrorist attacks, but not knowing the enemy or their reasons makes it difficult to combat. It also makes it more difficult for a military regime to restore the democratic stability it promised.

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