Robert Amsterdam on a “Strategy of Tension” in Bangkok

As the bombings in central Bangkok continue, and unelected Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban warns of more to come, rumours are swirling in the Thai capital as to whose interests are best served by these acts of terror.

After Sunday 25th July’s fatal bombing in central Bangkok, which killed one man, rumours turned into outright allegations by Thailand’s opposition Peua Thai Party (PTP) that the bombing was contrived so that the State of Emergency could be extended. The Bangkok Post reported that PTP believed the blast “was the work of professionals with expertise in explosives who may be linked to men in uniform close to the government.” More recently, Peua Thai MP and Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, accused the government of “creating a situation in order to keep the emergency decree in place in the capital and other provinces.”

For an official opposition party (actually the biggest single party in the Thai parliament), never mind one of the leaders of the Red Shirt movement, to be making such utterances is truly shocking. It reveals much about the deep divisions in Thai society. Yet, if we take Peua Thai’s allegations as having substance, the Thai establishment wouldn’t be the first to adopt such violent, nefarious tactics in order to cling onto power.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when parts of Europe were still controlled by extremist right wing elements entirely opposed to any sort of progressive politics or notions of social justice, a plan emerged which was later called the “Strategy of Tension.”

The basics of the Strategy of Tension were this:

“To manipulate popular feeling … by creating such social disruption and uncertainty that the populace would favour the installation of a strong-arm government pledged to restore order.” (From Stuart Christie’s Portrait of a Black Terrorist, 1984).

In the time period in question, the right wing elements involved in creating this Strategy of Tension were an amalgamation of disparate anti-communists which included, among others, European fascists, such as the then leader of Spain, General Franco, and, according to a report released in 2000 by an Italian political party, the CIA and elements in the Italian intelligence services.

But how did this coterie of fascists and other anti-democrat forces stir up and “manipulate popular feeling”? Quite simply they bombed, assassinated and kidnapped. And, this was key to their entire “strategy”, they wanted to blame such attacks on the very left wing progressives they opposed. In effect, they wanted the general population to be so outraged by the perceived terrorist actions of the progressive left that the Italian people would then accept the state abandoning democracy and creating a dictatorship.

The Strategy of Tension’s first big action was the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan in 1969 which killed 16. One Italian fascist member, Vincenzo Vinciguerra, would later admit in a 1998 interview with Italian press that this “explosion was supposed to be the detonator which would have convinced the political and military authorities to declare a state of emergency.”

Other bombings occurred aboard a train (12 dead), in the Italian town of Brescia (8 dead) and a horrific attack in Bologna in 1980 when 85 Italian citizens were murdered in one of Europe’s biggest post-war terrorist attacks.

Thais can easily draw comparisons to the events that rocked Italy in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. While we’ve certainly never suggested that the Red Shirts and their supporters are completely non-violent, shadowy forces, agent provocateurs and other elements linked to the establishment have long been rumoured to be operating behind the scenes on the streets of Bangkok. What is clear is that with each bombing the Abhisit government finds more cause to entrench its open-ended State of Emergency, the military gains more power and CRES cracks down harder on normal democratic activity.

In Italy, the murderous Strategy of Tension pursued by right wing extremists ultimately failed because the forces of democratic accountability held sway. Despite the horrific bombings, attacks which far surpassed anything Thailand has yet experienced, the Italian state never declared a State of Emergency, nor moved towards the kind of extreme right wing dictatorships that were then in power in Greece, Spain and Portugal. Important factors contributed to the failure of the Strategy of Tension in Italy, not least that there was a free press that was able to look critically at the evidence and raise questions about who committed the bombings. Key parts of the Italian establishment, including powerful elements within the then ruling centre-right Christian Democrat Party, were also far more committed to democracy than they were to the imposition of extreme right wing rule. But, in the final analysis, the most significant factor in the Strategy of Tension’s failure was that the Italian population failed to be “manipulated.” Quite simply, they preferred democracy.

Compared to the reaction of the Italian state to the atrocities perpetrated in Milan, Brescia and Bologna, PM Abhisit and the Thai establishment have been extraordinarily impatient in imposing their draconian and highly oppressive State of Emergency. Some might argue that this is a deliberate ratcheting up of “tension” that seems designed only to provoke fear and create division. In addition, the Thai establishment certainly has form on creating “tension” via the employment of extra-legal forces, the use of which during the 1992 Black May massacre is discussed in Professor Yoshifumi Tamada’s book Myths and Realities: The Democratization of Thai Politics.

With the endless, open-ended nature of Abhisit’s repression, observers are now furnished with a direct insight into the Thai establishment’s vanishing commitment to democracy. We can only hope that Thailand doesn’t have to endure a similarly vicious Strategy of Tension, designed only to protect the interests of extremist elements in the establishment, before democracy can fully flourish again.

Robert Amsterdam is an international lawyer retained by former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and acts as legal advisor to the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD).

About Robert Amsterdam, Guest Contributor