Thailand heightens public security

POSTED: 1002 GMT (1802 HKT), January 2, 2007

Story Highlights
• NEW: Military blames supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra
• 3 killed; 38 injured, including 9 foreigners
• Bombs explode at plaza where 2007 countdown planned in Bangkok
• Thai authorities cancel major New Year’s celebrations in two cities

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Soldiers and police patrolled key parts of Bangkok as holidaymakers returned to the capital’s streets Tuesday after a New Year’s Eve marred by bomb blasts blamed by the government on supporters of the ousted prime minister.

While most residential areas were unaffected, soldiers with automatic weapons guarded bus and train stations as well as Bangkok’s international airport, where large crowds were expected on the last day of New Year holidays, military spokesman Col. Sansern Chaengkamnerd said.

The eight small bombs that exploded across Bangkok prompted city authorities to cancel large-scale celebrations Sunday night and raised concerns about Thailand’s stability, shaky economy and thriving tourism industry. Police earlier said nine bombs had gone off but later reported that one was defused before exploding.

The bombings, which killed at least three people and wounded 38, capped a year of unrest in Thailand, including a September 19 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and an increasingly violent Muslim insurgency in the south.

The military-backed government has virtually ruled out southern insurgents in the Bangkok blasts, and is focusing on supporters of Thaksin as suspects, though it has named no one specifically and provided no evidence.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the blasts, and Thaksin has denied any involvement.

Trash bins were removed from many public places Tuesday, and the military said it would provide training to owners of department stores, factories and gas stations to help secure them against terrorist attacks.

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, who called the perpetrators “sick in the head,” dismissed the possibility that they were Muslim insurgents who have carried out bombings in the country’s far south, where nearly 2,000 people have been killed since 2004.

“From the evidence we have gathered, there is a slim chance that it is related to the southern insurgency,” Surayud said, adding that the insurgents would more likely have attacked “in their area of influence.”

Some experts said the bombs in Bangkok used different detonation devices than those used in the south and targeted working-class Thai areas, not the high-profile locations that would make sense to an insurgent group wanting to grab world headlines.
Southern insurgents not ruled out

However, others said it was premature to rule out the southern insurgents.

The secretary-general of the world’s largest Islamic grouping, the 54-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, condemned the attacks and expressed “deep regret over the lives that have been claimed by those terrorist attacks.”

“Such acts are in conflict with all human values and that they can in no way be justified,” Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said in a statement Monday.

Several senior members of Thaksin’s fallen government were ordered Monday to report to the Council for National Security, the military panel propping up the post-coup interim government.

In September, a group of generals ousted Thaksin in a bloodless takeover, and the military installed Surayud as interim prime minister until elections set for October 2007.

Thaksin, who has been barred from the country since the coup and is now traveling in China, responded through his lawyer that he had nothing to do with the nine bombs and that allegations of his involvement were “unfair.”

“Thaksin was elected by the people and even during the time of conflict, he has refrained from using violence,” Thaksin’s lawyer, Noppadol Patama, told a news conference in Bangkok. “It is very unlikely that a politician who was elected by the people will resort to violence.”

Several analysts noted that the military itself was a possible suspect, perhaps aiming to demonize the former prime minister and excuse the continuation of martial law, imposed during the September takeover and still in effect in some parts of the country.

Most analysts interviewed said Thaksin’s supporters appeared to be the most likely suspects, with the goal of destabilizing the new government and possibly providing an opening for Thaksin’s return.

Bangkok has rarely experienced deadly bombings, although several small explosions took place during recent political turmoil in an apparent attempt to create a sense of instability, rather than cause casualties.

Thaksin still has widespread support, and arson attacks in provincial areas since the coup have been blamed on his followers.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

T I M E 

A Troublesome Year in Thailand

A Thai soldier guards the site of a bomb blast at a bus stop in Bangkok, Sunday, December 31, 2006. At least six bombs exploded, leaving two dead and 21 injured around the city


rina Martin, a German tourist who was in Bangkok for the party-loving city’s raucous New Year’s Eve festivities, must be glad she listened to her gut. Around 9 p.m. on Dec. 31, the kindergarten teacher from Hamburg was grappling with the unnerving news that six bombs had detonated across the Thai capital just a couple of hours earlier, targeting everything from a shopping mall and a supermarket to a bus stop at Victory Monument, one of the city’s busiest gathering places. Watching the police comb for evidence at Victory Monument, Martin changed her mind about attending the famous New Year’s countdown at the Central World Plaza shopping center. “I heard rumors that there might be more explosions at midnight,” she said. “It’s not worth going, just for a party.” Her fears proved well founded: just after midnight, another two bombs erupted, this time near Central World. Although Bangkok authorities had canceled the countdown after the earlier attacks, plenty of people were still milling around the area. All told, the eight New Year’s Eve blasts killed three and injured dozens, including several foreign tourists.

The explosions—so far no one has claimed responsibility—capped off a remarkably turbulent year for Thailand. In September, its democratically elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by a military junta. Then, on Dec. 19, Thailand’s stock exchange suffered its worst-ever one-day drop after the nation’s monetary czars instituted ill-considered capital controls to ward off currency speculators. Meanwhile, an insurgent movement in the largely Muslim south has ratcheted up its violent campaign, with near daily attacks in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces. “[2006] was the year of the greatest social and political divisions in a generation,” says Bangkok-based author and economist Chris Baker.

The New Year’s Eve blasts were the work of small, crude devices, but the impact of the bombings felt outsized for a nation that depends heavily on tourism and foreign investment. Bangkok and its environs serve as a regional manufacturing hub, and part of the capital’s attraction had been its reputation as a terror-free zone in a region where security threats are omnipresent. Complicating matters, the country’s financial edge has been blunted lately by the new military-installed government, which is making foreign investment in Thailand more difficult—just as countries like China, India and even Vietnam are rolling out the red carpet. For a military junta whose bloodless takeover of power was supposed to presage a return to political and financial normalcy, the bombings prove just how fragile such promises can be. “This is a military government, but it can’t maintain security,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “On the economy, they’ve had major setbacks. The post-coup management has been dismal.”

As the new year began, Bangkok was swirling with speculation about the masterminds behind the bombings. Initial suspicion centered on Muslim insurgents, who have terrorized Thailand’s south with unrelenting attacks that have claimed nearly 2,000 lives over the past three years. But the insurgents, some of whom are fighting for a separate Muslim state, have never taken their bloody campaign out of the south. “It’s unlikely this was the work of southern insurgents,” says Francesca Lawe-Davies, Southeast Asia Analyst for the International Crisis Group. “It’s always been more about their territory; if they were to stage an attack in Bangkok, I think they would choose a target more directly linked to the Thai state instead of public places.” At a press conference a day after the bombings, interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont discounted speculation that the carnage was coordinated by Muslim extremists, instead linking the bombs to “people who lost benefits from losing political power.”

Surayud did not identify any particular group—nor was any concrete evidence cited—but the implication was that he suspected forces tied to ousted Prime Minister Thaksin. The billionaire ex-PM, who remains in exile overseas as the interim administration investigates whether corruption charges can be brought against him, denied any involvement with the attacks. Although unpopular among the urban and middle-class electorate, Thaksin swept into office with a record-high vote, largely thanks to support from the country’s rural northern region. Since the September coup, more than a dozen public schools in the northeast have mysteriously caught fire. Initially, regional police, who made up one of Thaksin’s strongest constituencies, blamed faulty wiring. But the military junta has cited the fires, which they consider deliberate torchings by Thaksin supporters, as justification for keeping parts of the nation under martial law. Certainly, linking the New Year’s Eve violence to elements close to Thaksin could benefit the military junta. “[The government] may have felt that if they cracked down hard against their opponents they would appear too harsh, and the public would turn against them,” says Panitan Wattanayagorn, a security expert at Chulalongkorn University. “But now they can because people are angry.”

However, managing public anger can be a perilous task. So far, Thailand’s ruling junta has enjoyed remarkable domestic support, particularly among the urban �lite who normally might have been counted upon to support a democratic transition over a military coup. Nevertheless, cracks are appearing in the generals’ popularity. Though coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin is a member of Thailand’s Muslim minority, insurgent attacks in the south have increased since his administration took office. Sonthi has also been criticized for meddling in the drafting of Thailand’s new constitution. And even though the junta put technocrats in charge of the country’s economy, the financial team slipped badly when it miscalculated how significantly the prospect of capital controls would rattle foreign investors. Nor has the aftermath of the stock market’s plunge on Dec. 19 been fully digested—especially now that eight blasts have been thrown into the volatile mix. “The true effects of the crash were minimized by the holidays, which dried up [trading] volume,” says Andrew Stotz, head of Thailand research at Citicorp Securities Thailand. “Now the question in January is: Will foreigners double down or reduce? I think they will reduce.”

Further spooking investors are the Ministry of Commerce’s proposed amendments to the Foreign Business Act, which could force thousands of international companies to change their shareholding structure if they wish to continue operating in Thailand. Currently, many foreign firms invest in Thailand by putting the majority of shares in the name of a local nominee who has little real authority. But the amendment, which could be announced as early as this month, may require local partners to have voting power commensurate to their shares. Already, according to Yoichi Kato, head of the Bangkok office of the Japan External Trade Organization, several Japanese firms have told him that they may postpone investment in Thailand. “If you want to play in the global game, you can’t just play by Thai rules,” says Peter van Haren, president of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Bangkok. “Other Asian nations are willing to play by international rules, and they could win out.”

For its part, the interim government’s financial team maintains that Thailand’s economy needs such safeguards against destabilizing foreign forces. With unprecedented capital inflows pouring into Thailand, the baht hit a nine-year high in December, making the country’s exports more expensive abroad. Meanwhile, other export-reliant nations like China have kept their currencies’ appreciation to a minimum, prompting the Bank of Thailand to unveil its ill-fated capital controls. “I’ve told the International Monetary Fund that they really need to consider restructuring the world financial system because of these imbalances that are hurting small, open economies,” says Bank of Thailand governor Tarisa Watanagase. “We need a new world financial order.”

But the most immediate task for Thailand’s new rulers is to bring the New Year’s Eve bombers to justice. “Whether or not they can catch those who are responsible will be very important to the credibility of this government,” says Professor Panitan. “As long as they can’t arrest these people, the international community will not have confidence in Thailand.” After such a tumultuous 2006, Thais can only hope that the new year restores some measure of stability—and safety.

With reporting by Robert Horn/Bangkok



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