Politics and security in Thailand

20150819-bangkok_blast_shrine-440

Experts investigate the Erawan shrine at the site of a deadly blast in central Bangkok.

Editor’s note: look at a table by Zachary Abuza examining potential culprits for the Bangkok blast and the likelihood they committed the attack.  

In the wake of the Bangkok blasts, politics and the junta’s self-interests should not trump a proper investigation. 

It is still too early to attribute the bombings in Bangkok to any group and to date no one has claimed responsibility.

There are plenty of suspects: radical red shirts seeking to discredit the military regime by crippling the economy; southern Thai insurgents, in particular younger more radical members frustrated at the pace and scope of the insurgency now in its 12th year, but no closer to achieving its goals, who have been inching out of the deep south since December 2013; or international terrorist groups which have always seen Bangkok as a very appealing target.

Each has motives and reasons to eschew such violence. The attack fits no group’s MO, so nothing can be ruled out right now.

But what is needed more than anything is for the investigation to take its course without political interference. At first the security forces pledged to not rule any suspects or groups out.

And yet, one cannot forget the junta’s recent handling of the April 2015 bombing on the resort island of Koh Samui: within hours senior junta leaders attributed the attack to radical Red Shirts, despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary.

The bomb design was identical to those most commonly used in the south, the vehicle was from Yala, apparently stolen in an insurgent operation, and the attack mirrored the March 2013 bombing of the Lee Gardens hotel: detonated in a remote car park to cause few casualties but sending a clear signal.

And yet the police commander from the Deep South was quickly over-ruled by the national police chief and the junta. Investigations into Red Shirt connections have gone nowhere, with one arrest and quick release of a Red Shirt activist for a cryptic comment on Facebook.

Quietly, so as for the junta to not lose face, there have been a number of arrests of southern insurgents in connection to the Samui attacks.

That is not to say that insurgents were behind the two bombings in Bangkok. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that it was international-based terrorism or a hybrid.

But the investigation must follow the evidence, not the political dictates of a junta hell bent on vilifying their political rivals. And sadly, the junta seems to be pursuing another Cheyney-esque attempt to find evidence to fit their pre-existing political world-view. The police chief Somyot Poompanmoung has already suggested Red Shirts were behind at least the second attack.

Let us be clear: this was a massive intelligence failure on the part of Thai security forces that have richly rewarded themselves since the coup. Indeed, between the 2006 and 2014 coups, military expenditures increased nearly fourfold.

Spending increased sharply in 2015 following the coup, which is set to rise by 7 percent more in the 2016 budget, some $6.3 billion. Police and other security force expenditure has likewise increased as the regime has prioritised security since the May 2014 coup d’etat.

At the same time, the military government has expanded their legal and investigative powers, in particular in the cyber and telecommunications fields.

Despite all of these increases and new powers, the junta’s obsession with neutralising their domestic political rivals has blinded them to other serious threats to national security. Their biases and aversion to facts give pause that the hope that the investigation will be conducted honestly and transparently.

It’s a reminder once again of the dangers posed by autocratic regimes that equate their own survival with national survival. That always leaves a country, its people and economy, more vulnerable.

With the international community watching, there is finally some hope that the regime will do what’s best for the country, not their consolidation of power.

Zachary Abuza is a principal at Southeast Asia Analysis specialising in regional politics and security issues. He has authored numerous books including Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand(2008) and Militant Islam in Southeast Asia (2003).

Look at a table by Zachary Abuza examining potential culprits for the Bangkok blast and the likelihood they committed the attack.