October 04, 2015

Thailand: Deadliest Terror Attack

Yohannan Chemarapally

THAILAND experienced its deadliest terror attack on August 17 when a bomb went off at the Erawan Shrine. It is a popular Hindu and Buddhist shrine, frequented throughout the day by large numbers of tourists. 22 people were killed and more than 120 injured in the attack which was designed to cause maximum casualties. Many foreigners, seven of them from China and Hong Kong, were among those killed. Many of the wounded are also from China and Taiwan. Two unexploded bombs were discovered after the carnage. The bomb which exploded was so powerful that even the concrete of the temple wall was stripped off. Within 24 hours of the bombing, there was another attempted terror attack. Fortunately that attempt to target a boat carrying tourists failed as the bomb which was hurled from a bridge narrowly missed its target. So far no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Thai security services have been able to identify only one suspect. The suspect, who had distinctly non-Thai features, wearing a yellow shirt was seen in grainy video footage leaving the temple premises, after dropping a suspicious looking bag. The explosion followed soon after. “The yellow shirt guy is just not the suspect, he is the bomber”, a top Thai police officer told the media soon after the horrific incident occurred. The suspect, who the Thai authorities insist is a foreigner from either Europe or West Asia, has not been apprehended till late August, despite his photograph being widely circulated. The prime minister of Thailand and the army strongman General Prayuth Chan-Ocha initially said that only Thai agencies would be doing the investigations. But his government soon changed its stance, following international diplomatic pressure and announced that it was seeking the help of foreign agencies. An Interpol alert for the suspect has been sounded. Thailand's military junta, the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO) which celebrated its first anniversary in office in June, has been however quick to lay the blame for the attacks on domestic players, without giving any tangible supporting evidence. The opposing sides in Thailand have occasionally shot at each other and thrown grenades but have never resorted to terror attacks on the scale witnessed in August. The junta was also quick to rule out the hand of insurgent groups in southern Thailand. The minority Muslims in the region have been waging a low level guerrilla war against the central government in Bangkok for many years now. The movement in the South spearheaded by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordanasi (BSN-I) has been demanding autonomy for their province for a long time. In recent months, they have used pipe bombs, similar to the one used in temple attack, against the Thai military in the south of the country. In July, the Muslim rebels had staged 27 IED attacks. Six months ago, two smaller pipe bombs had exploded in another popular tourist spot in the capital Bangkok – the Siam Paragon Mall. The government had blamed the opposition “red shirts” for that attack too. The most credible theory floating was that the target of the bombing were Chinese tourists and the perpetrators had links with the separatist Uighurs. In July, Thailand had deported more than one hundred Uighurs “suspected of terrorism” by Beijing to China. According to reports, China suspected that the Uighurs after undergoing training in southern Thailand were planning to join the jihad in West Asia. The deportation incident had infuriated the Uighur exile community. Many Uighurs hailing from western Xinjiang are active in organisations like the al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS). In recent years they have carried out many terror attacks on the Chinese mainland. In late September, the Thai authorities finally nabbed three suspects, all foreign nationals, two from Turkey and one from China. All of them are said to have links with a Uighur terror outfit. HEINOUS ACT Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who led the coup which ousted the democratically elected government, had been quick to imply that the supporters of the former ruling party were responsible for the heinous act. A spokesman for the NCPO told the Bangkok Post that in all likelihood “the perpetrators are the same group which lost political benefits and want to create chaos in the country”. He was referring to the “Red Shirt” movement that has now coalesced into a grouping known as the “United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship”. They have been demanding the restoration of democracy. The supporters of the ousted government have reasons to be angrier as the ruling junta wants to impose a new constitution that will permanently exclude the majority from power. On September 6, the country's National Reform Council, dominated by the military and their supporters, was expected to approve a new constitution that will give the army a permanent say in the running of the government. A referendum on the constitution was scheduled to be held in January next year. The Constitution Drafting Commission had not hidden its main agenda. The aim, according to the Commission, “is to end parliamentary dictatorship”. In other words, under the proposed constitution, the parliament will be reduced to a rubber stamp. Former prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was barred in July from politics for a period of five years. Under the proposed constitution, 123 of the 200 Senate seats will be filled by those nominated by the military and the pro-royalist bureaucracy. The lower house will be under the purview of an “ethics committee” that will have the power of removing MP's from ministerial posts on “moral” or “ethical” grounds. The proposed constitution would also ban politicians from passing laws “that establish personal political popularity”. The army leadership is of the view that such laws could “prove detrimental” to the national economy and public interests “in the long run”. The army generals however in an eleventh hour decision got the motion to introduce the new constitution defeated in their handpicked assembly. The army leadership probably feared that the new constitution would be rejected in the referendum that they had promised to hold this year. The referendum was to be followed by a general election. Now the elections too have been postponed. The junta is ruling on behalf of the Bangkok elite and their storm troopers – “the Yellow Shirts”. The Yellow Shirts had brought Bangkok to a standstill early last year, preventing the government from functioning with the active help of the army and the security apparatus. They had openly called on the military to intervene. After the attack on the shrine, the government has deployed more security personnel in Bangkok and the northeast of the country. That region is the power base of the Shinawatras, Yingluck and her elder brother, Thaksin. Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in an earlier 2006 military coup. His sister Yingluck met the same fate last year, despite her party, the Pheu Thai, having a majority in parliament. The party continues to have strong support in the countryside. During its years in power, the party had introduced schemes that empowered the peasantry. These included providing subsidies and loans to farmers. The Shinawatra government had also ensured higher minimum wages for the workers. TIMING OF THE ATTACK Questions are being raised about the timing of the recent terror attack. Some observers of Thai politics have said that such attacks will give credence to the army's stance that their presence at the helm of affairs is crucial for the country's security as it prepares for a politically fraught royal succession. More than 40 people have been given lengthy prison sentences for the alleged crime of “lesse majeste” (insulting the monarchy). On taking power, the army junta had annulled the constitution, except for the chapter on the monarchy. Hundreds of political opponents are in jail. The media is heavily censored. Political protests and gatherings have been banned. “Behind the facade of stability, the junta has steamrolled fundamental human rights and runs the country unchecked. Members of the military have been directly responsible for a myriad of violations of international law but there is no way of holding them responsible”, according to Andrea Giorgetta, the head of the Asia Desk of the International Federation for Human Rights. Elections are scheduled to be held in September next year. There are indications, given growing public disaffection, the elections will be further postponed. The junta, which has the backing of Washington, has scrapped many of the populist schemes that the democratically elected government had introduced. The Thai military has signed on to President Barack Obama's “pivot to the East”. The armies of the two countries had held joint military exercises in February this year. The Obama administration had postponed the joint military exercises last year to signal its displeasure at the coup mounted by the Thai armed forces. The Thai political and military establishment has traditionally been close to the United States. It sided with Washington during the war in Vietnam. The two countries together had tried to destabilise Cambodia, after the removal of the murderous regime of Pol Pot. Washington is afraid that if it continues to snub the Thai military rulers, China may step into the breach. The subsidy to rice farmers is among the schemes that have been put on the chopping block after the civilian government was ousted last year. Rice output has gone down significantly. A drought this year has added to the problem. 40 percent of the country's work force is engaged in agriculture. The economy too has been not doing well. Manufacturing has slowed down, exports are shrinking and the country's external debts are rising. The growth forecast for 2015 has been tempered down from the original 3-4 percent to 2.7-3.2 percent. The Bangkok bombing may most probably impact on the earnings from tourism. Tourism revenues account for 10 percent of the country's GDP. The Thai economy is among the worst performing ones in Asia. Thailand's defense minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, had said that those responsible for the terror attack “intended to destroy the economy and tourism”.