The bounce of a ping-pong bomb

Asia Time Online - Daily News

Oct 15, 2008

By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK – Who was primarily responsible for the grisly violence which killed two people, maimed many and injured hundreds of anti-government protesters in the Thai capital on October 7? The answer to that question, now under investigation by two government-appointed panels, could have a large impact on the outcome of the country’s violently escalating political conflict – and, as such, alter the course of Thai democracy.

One week after police fired tear-gas canisters to disperse a group of People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protesters in front of parliament, the history of those violent events is hotly contested, with each side blaming the other for detonating improvised

explosive devices, or so-called ping-pong bombs, amid the fog of the government’s crackdown.

Local newspapers last week were splattered with gory and graphic images of bloodied protesters who lost limbs in the attacks’ hazy early dawn aftermath. A protester who had half of his leg completely severed was even shown on state-controlled television. The mainstream Thai media have in the main played up the PAD-perpetuated narrative that rogue police officers likely threw the explosives, which killed two demonstrators and maimed an estimated six others.

More significantly, army commander Anupong Paochinda demanded that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat’s government accept full responsibility for the violence – the latest indication that under Anupong the military considers itself independent of the elected government. That’s raised speculation that the military could eventually intervene and bump Somchai from power on the grounds of protecting the Thai people from abusive politicians if the two panels’ findings unanimously pin the blame for the October 7 events to the police.

All agree the police mishandled the crowd control operation by firing the tear-gas canisters directly into rather than nearby the protesters. At the same time, government officials have countered that there is compelling evidence indicating the PAD itself may have triggered the low-grade explosions, in a cynical ploy to generate public sympathy for their anti-government cause, which includes a “new politics” bid to move towards more appointed, and fewer elected, government representatives in parliament.

One official, who requested anonymity, believes the interpretation of events so far represents a public relations failure. He pointed to lack of attention to the still-unexplained explosion of a white Jeep Cherokee, allegedly laden with bombs and owned by a prominent PAD supporter and police lieutenant colonel, which exploded on October 7 near the PAD’s main protest site at Government House.

The official claims that if the police had lobbed grenades among protesters the number of injuries would have been higher and that there would have been noticeable craters left in the cement and evidence of shrapnel. He also contends that widely circulated photos of injured protesters holding in their hands some of the round unexploded devices were not published in the mainstream Thai media.

Meanwhile, a recent online discussion at’s Rajdamnern chat room raised questions about perceived pro-PAD bias in the mainstream media’s coverage of events and posted pictures under “black propaganda” headings that appear to corroborate the official’s claim that certain protesters were in possession of the mysterious devices.

One possible check and balance on the investigative panels could come from the United States government. According to the same government official, a US citizen was among the injured and required surgery after the October 7 assault. There is a precedent for the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to launch its own probe into attacks involving American nationals, as the agency did this after a grenade attack that killed several during a Khmer Nation Party rally in Cambodia in 1997.

Thriving on violence
For its part, the PAD has so far parlayed the violence to its political advantage, stoking always close-to-the-surface popular resentment against the Thai police and re-energizing the movement’s popular support base, which since the October 7 violence has seen a noticeable surge in its yellow-clad numbers. PAD leaders have vowed to file criminal charges against the government both in local and global courts.

Despite what many view as the protest movement’s reactionary agenda, the PAD has deftly mobilized the leftist symbolism of the 1970s’ pro-democracy movement – which likewise was violently suppressed by Thai police forces on October 6, 1976 – to consolidate support among Thai progressives, academics, students and non-governmental organizations.

The PAD’s numbers had dwindled substantially after prime minister Samak Sundaravej, previously the PAD’s prime target for serving as a proxy for ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, was disqualified from the premiership by a Thai court for hosting and receiving payment for a television cooking show. The PAD was also handed a popular rebuke when an opinion poll showed around 70% of Bangkok residents supported the arrest on October 5 of protest co-leader Chamlong Srimuang on treason charges.

What is clearer is that the PAD has abandoned its earlier claim to being a non-violent movement. Three police officers were shot by PAD supporters near parliament after protesters retook the building in the afternoon of October 7. That same day, another officer was run over and injured by a PAD supporter driving a pick-up truck. The violence followed up the PAD’s commando-style assaults on government buildings on August 26, including an apparent armed attack on a state-run television station.

A government official claims that as many as 1,000 off-duty military officials are at any given time positioned at the PAD protest site and that they had even recently established a grenade unit. Another military insider says he has recently seen lieutenant colonels in charge of fighting units, including from Chantaburi and Lopburi provinces, dressed as civilians at recent PAD rallies. (PAD co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul denied in an ATol interview last month that the PAD receives any military support and that his movement is financed and organized by “the people”. See What Sondhi really wants for Thailand, Asia Times Online, September 9, 2008)

With or without military support, other important institutions have seemingly lined up behind the PAD, including the political opposition Democrat party, activist courts and, at least symbolically, members of the royal family. The Administrative Court last week dropped treason-related charges against the PAD’s nine co-leaders, who surrendered to police to contest lesser charges and were immediately released on bail.

Royal condolences
Meanwhile, at least two senior opposition Democrat party members double as top PAD supporters and the party has echoed the PAD’s calls for Somchai to resign in the wake of the violence. Most significantly, Queen Sirikit and Princess Chulaborn Valayalaksana on Monday presided over the funeral service of a PAD protester who was killed during the October 7 melee. According to the local press, the queen told the female victim’s parents that she had died a “protector” of the monarchy.

By law the Thai monarchy is above politics, but the highly revered queen’s presence was widely interpreted as at least tacit royal support for the anti-government movement. One government supporter noted without comment that royal family members did not attend the funeral service of a pro-government demonstrator who was killed in street clashes on September 2.

If those interpretations hold true – and barring any investigative findings which show irrefutably that the PAD was not only the victim but also the perpetrator of the violence – then Somchai’s days as premier are likely numbered. Though not necessarily without a fight: over the weekend, tens of thousands of red-clad pro-government supporters, known as the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD), convened in a show of force at Bangkok’s Sanam Luang park.

The group threatened to confront the PAD if it followed through on plans to rally in front of the national police headquarters on Monday. Those plans were put on hold after the PAD’s leadership decided instead to direct their supporters to the royally attended funeral service. That provided a temporary reprieve, but the two groups are now mobilized and seemingly on a collusion course. One government insider said the group plans to bring off-duty border police and marines to fortify its ranks.

What happens next is altogether unclear. Some believe the Constitution Court could rush through a decision on the Election Commission’s recommendation to dissolve Somchai’s People’s Power Party (PPP) and two coalition parties on electoral fraud charges. The court agreed to hear the charges today and a guilty verdict would at least temporarily defuse political tensions and set the stage for new democratic polls.

Army commander Anupong has consistently ruled out the possibility of another coup, but has simultaneously through his aloofness positioned the military as a mediator of last resort. He refused to implement Samak’s emergency decree in early September and has repeatedly voiced his support for the establishment of a national unity government, presumably including the PAD-supporting Democrat party, to resolve the crisis.

If bigger clashes break out on Bangkok’s streets, Anupong may have no choice but to intervene and establish a national unity government by force. Indeed, he may already be preparing, at least rhetorically, for that eventuality. One military insider notes that content analysis of Anupong’s recent speeches reveals the increasing number of times he mentions that the military are the “people’s soldiers” and not solely the protector of the state, religion and monarchy. He believes that a possible scenario in which the military professionally contains a clash between the PAD and DAAD could consolidate Anupong’s and the military’s reputation as a “hero who saves the day”.

Perhaps, but a public opinion poll in August showed that less than 5% of Thais would support another military coup after the perceived misgovernance that followed the 2006 intervention. That was before pro- and anti-government groups first clashed on Bangkok’s streets on September 2 and the shocking images from the still-unexplained violence of October 7. Popular sentiment could shift again, either against the PAD or government, once the findings from the investigative panels are made public.

Some Thais feared that a sort of civil war pitting competing political groups with divergent visions for the country’s future would break out after the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s long-stabilizing influence. That those tensions have come to the fore while Bhumibol is still on the throne provides some hope yet that Thailand will not slide completely into the abyss.



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