Spate of New Year bombings signals widening political woes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2007, 12:00am

Different theories offered as police deny southern Muslim insurgents responsible

Last September residents in Bangkok cheered the bloodless military coup that ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and ended several months of political gridlock. The coup leaders promised to restore stability and order, and heal Thailand's deep political divisions.

But Sunday's string of co-ordinated bombings in the Thai capital, and the fear of further attacks in the days ahead, signal that Thailand's political struggle may be far from over, and could be escalating.

As security forces tried to uncover the hand behind the New Year's eve attacks, which killed three people and injured more than 30, different theories were emerging of the likely perpetrators.

No group has claimed responsibility for planting the bombs, and police have yet to make any confirmed arrests.

Police and political leaders quickly played down the idea that Muslim separatists from Thailand's conflict-ridden south had extended their campaign to Bangkok. As early as Sunday evening, the night of the attacks, national police chief, Lieutenant-General Ajirawit Suphanaphesat, said that he did not believe there was a link to the southern insurgents, who are blamed for daily bombings, shootings and other acts of intimidation in the three southernmost provinces.

Some analysts agree, citing the scope of the attacks and the improvised bombs. 'The insurgents clearly have the technical capacities, but you have to wonder do they have the infrastructure in Bangkok to do eight bombs,' said Zachary Abuza, an expert on militant Islam in Southeast Asia.

But others are sceptical of the rush to rule out Islamic militants.

Sanit Nakajitti, director of PSA Asia Pacific Group, a security consultancy, said the use of clock timers and ammonium-nitrate was consistent with the bombs made by insurgents. Mr Sanit, a former police officer, cited recent intelligence reports that militants had selected sites in Bangkok for a bombing campaign.

Some government officials, including Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, have sought to pin the blame on domestic political players - by implication, disgruntled members of the old government.

Military chiefs have repeatedly warned that Mr Thaksin was trying to stage a comeback by destabilising the new regime. This threat has been used to justify the continuation of martial law to monitor supporters of the ousted leader, who is currently living in exile in Beijing.

Members of Mr Thaksin's former political party quickly denied any involvement in the bombings. But a party source said yesterday that two senior party officials who were detained immediately after the coup had been called in for questioning by the junta. Earlier this year, small bombs were set off in Bangkok during periods of heightened political drama, but none appeared designed to cause casualties.

By contrast, the second wave of Sunday's bombs were timed to catch crowds of revellers.

An alternative theory is that the violence is linked to factional politics inside the military elite vying for power. General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who heads the Council for National Security, as the junta calls itself, has drawn flak from hardliners for slow progress on putting Mr Thaksin on trial for alleged corruption during his five-year rule.

Analysts said the bombings could be a pretext for clamping down on those against the coup.

Extra troops have been deployed in Bangkok in response to the bombings, and soldiers are joining police in the hunt for leads. This reflected deep distrust among top brass towards a police force that it suspected may still be loyal to Mr Thaksin, a former police colonel.