By: Christ Tylor
A series of small bombs that exploded in Bangkok on August 2 on the margins of an Asean summit appear to have been planted to cause panic and embarrass the government but also point to unhealed rifts in Thailand
On Friday, 2 August, six bombs exploded in Bangkok, coinciding with the opening of the 26th Asean Regional forum. Four people were injured in an assault on the city that seems to have been aimed at causing panic, not mass fatalities.
The explosive devices were small, so-called “ping pong bombs”, approximately the size of a table tennis ball, suggesting they were planted with the aim of minimising civilian casualties.
The incident received widespread media coverage due to the presence of foreign media covering the Asean summit, which was joined by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, among other foreign dignitaries from 21 nations.
Bangkok is no stranger to bombings and social strife, but the explosive re-emergence of protest on Friday came after a lull of some four years – the Erawan Shrine bombing of August 2015 killed 20 and injured 120 – giving city residents perhaps hope that the days of restive street violence were a thing of the past.
Obviously, they are not. The task facing the authorities is to mount an investigation and get to the bottom of why.
Immediate reactions suggested that the bombs were planted in an attempt to embarrass the government during a high-profile international event just months after divisive elections. It is too soon to speculate who was behind them. But most eyes turned to Thailand’s Deep South, where a Muslim separatist insurgency has roiled for two decades, leading to approximately 7,000 deaths.
Initial media reports of two southern men arrested by the Royal Thai Police in Chumphon province in relation to the attacks supported such conjecture. The two men, from Narithiwat province, were said to claim that they and eight accomplices had acted in revenge for the death of a suspected sympathiser who had been detained by the Fourth Army Region in the South.
Thai police promptly denied that the bombings were an act of revenge.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered an investigation into the bombings, which are likely of some embarrassment given that he hosted the ASEAN summit after being elected prime minister by parliament in June. He also pointed to the possible involvement of an “old group”, which was taken to refer to political rivals, the Red Shirts – supporters of former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra.
Whether the denials by the police or speculation by the prime minister prove to be supported by an official investigation remains to be seen. But the last large-scale bombing spree in Thailand, the so-called Mother’s Day bombings of August 11-12, 2016 – affecting seven provinces – police concluded, were carried out by a separatist movement from the border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. The attacks left four dead and dozens injured.
National police chief Chakthip Chaijinda suggested that the same insurgents behind the 2016 attacks from the South were involved.
“Although it was the same group, this time they used new members who had no criminal records to carry out the attacks in Bangkok,” Police General Chakthip said.
The prime minister added in a Facebook post, “I condemn the mastermind behind this morning’s bomb blasts, which destroyed people and the country's image. I have asked officials to beef up security for members of the public and take urgent care of those affected by the explosions.”
In a move to maintain tourism confidence, Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakan and officials visited Bangkok’s Chinatown on the evening of the bombings, shaking tourists’ hands and assuring them that the capital remained safe. He added that he did not think the incident would affect the nation’s booming tourist trade.
This is probably true. Teflon Thailand’s tourism industry appears immune to the depredations of civil unrest. Tourist numbers reached a record high of 38.2 million visitors last year.
All the same, Friday’s bombings should be seen as a reminder that all is far from well in the Land of Smiles, and reconciliation for the country’s political, business and ethnic divisions remains elusive in any absolute sense.
It has been a momentous year for Thailand, with the coronation of a new King and establishment of a newly elected democratic government. The next challenging task is to focus on Thailand’s tectonics and open dialogue on the country’s lingering fault-lines of discontent.