The Land of a Thousand Smiles faces a grim future after the series of bombing on New Year’s Eve in Bangkok that left three dead and 38 wounded
By Andrew Lam, New America Media
Jan 03, 2007 – Thailand is moving toward uncharted waters. Not too long ago, it was considered the safest country in Southeast Asia. But in the latest bombings in Bangkok, with the television showing images of wounded tourists and pools of blood on the streets, and soldiers carrying automatic rifles in practically every street corner, the Land of a Thousand Smiles, it seems, is quickly turning into a grimace.
The bombings which occurred during New Year’s Eve celebration couldn’t be more inauspicious. 2006 has been a year of bad luck: escalating Muslim insurgencies in the South, a shaky economy, capped by a military coup three months ago that took democracy away in one swoop. Though the military junta promised an expedient election, they have postponed it until October 2007.
While some analysts speculated that the eight small bombs that left three dead and 38 injured are the works of southern Muslim insurgents, others believed that they were the results of clashing political factions. There are good arguments behind each one.
Ousted Prime Minister Sinawatra Thaksin, while in power, initially dismissed the insurgents as local youths and gangs, then later begrudgingly speculated that they might be the local front in the global War on Terrorism.
Whether they are supported by larger international networks or not – and there are reports that groups like Malaysian Kampulan Mujahedin and Jemaah Islamiyah which has ties to the al-Qaida terror network are connected with the insurgents in the south – the rebels have legitimate grievances. In the two southernmost provinces Muslims are the majority, but live under Buddhist minority domination. From culture to language — many Muslims in the southern provinces speak Yawi and not Thai — to economic status, they live as an ostracized minority. Police brutalities and crackdowns are routine in the south. Human rights activists have railed against the torture and disappearance of suspected separatists for years. Only two years ago more than 100 men and teenagers were ambushed and killed while attacking a police station in Yala province: they were carrying only machetes and a few handguns.
But if the separatists are responsible for the series of bombings in Bangkok, they have not owned up to the deed. The authorities, have dismissed the idea that Muslim insurgents as the culprits. Bangkok is almost a foreign country to these impoverished fighters, government officials said, and they lack the sophistication needed for the bombings.
After the bombings, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, installed by the military junta, told journalists that “from the evidence we have gathered, there is a slim chance that it is related to the southern insurgency. It is likely related to people who lost their political benefits.” The implication is that the bombings are more likely to have been the works of backers of ousted and exiled Prime Minister Thaksin, who is currently in China.
Thaksin himself denied it. His lawyer Noppadol Patama, told the press at a news conference that: “Thaksin was elected by the people and even during the time of conflict, he has refrained from using violence. It is very unlikely that a politician who was elected by the people will resort to violence.”
But there are benefits for Thaksin if Bangkok is thrown into chaos. It could help undermine military rule. After all, the military hasn’t brought calm and stability after its bloodless coup in early September, and if the bombings continue, Thailand might very well roll out the red carpet to welcome Thaksin back as the strongman who could reinstall peace to the country, and pacify the south.
On the other hand, the bombings could also be seen as a bid for the military to stay in power. With 6,000 places in the capital guarded by police and soldiers, Thailand now seems very much a police state. At every train station, guards carry automatic rifles. And in every major hotel, cars are carefully checked for bombs.
Some analysts believed that the military, or a faction within it, may also have been responsible. They may have sought, they said, to demonize the former prime minister and provide a pretext to continue martial law, imposed during the September takeover. If the current government can blame Thaksin or his backers, Thaksin may no longer have the strong backing he currently enjoys and it would be futile for him to return to run in the October election.
For Thailand the worst scenario would be that the separatists are behind the bombings. It would mean that the low level insurgency in the southernmost provinces has taken its fight to the country’s center. And if more bombings were to occur, it would mean the country would fall into the sphere of international terrorism. The tourist industry, a major part of Thailand’s income, along with its capital market, consumer confidence and foreign investment, would surely suffer.
Once the envy of its neighbors – Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Cambodia, Malaysia- who suffered under colonial rules, Thailand alone in Southeast Asia developed independently and in peace. But the tourist Mecca of Southeast Asia always has had a grimmer side, one that it tried to keep tightly under wraps.
Indeed, the bombings in Bangkok exposed an underbelly that has always been part of its national experience. Even Bangkok’s leading English language paper, The Nation, acknowledged this in its editorial. “Despite our national trademark showcasing warm smiles and a peace-loving nature, we Thais have always had seriously bad traits hidden inside. Thais, it’s sad to say, are capable of killing when it comes to ideological or political struggles.”
NAM editor, Andrew Lam, visited Bangkok last February and writes frequently on Southeast Asia. Lam is the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.”