In The News

Signs of a New Insurgency in Thailand?

October 13, 2010

On October 5, the normally quiet Bangkok suburb of Nonthaburi was jolted by an explosion that left four people dead and several more wounded. The blast ripped through a nondescript, working-class apartment building and an adjacent market in the early evening, just before residents were returning from work. Thai investigators have determined that the blast most likely occurred accidently as someone assembled one or more homemade bombs in a second floor room in the Samarn Metta Mansion apartment complex.

Red-Shirt protestors use tires and sticks to barricade a road during violent protests in April and May that ended with a deadly government crackdown on May 19.

According to The Nation newspaper, the room had been rented just two weeks earlier by Samai Wongsuwan, a staunch supporter of the “Red Shirts,” the protest movement that occupied part of Bangkok’s downtown commercial district for more than two months earlier this year in a standoff that ended with the May 19 government crackdown. According to his wife, Khun Samai had decided to go underground shortly after the May protests, and had been out of touch for more than three months. The Thai authorities are currently investigating two other people who are suspected of involvement in the bomb-making activities, as well as the background of Khun Samai, who was killed in the blast.

There is a growing sense of anxiety here in Bangkok. Over the past few months, there have been a series of small explosions across Bangkok and some provincial capitals. Most of these attacks have been relatively harmless, usually resulting in some minor property damage, and rarely leading to injuries or loss of life. The Nonthaburi bomb was significantly more powerful, however, leading to speculation on the bomb-making operation’s intended targets and support networks. Late last week, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva warned that more bombs are likely in the coming months. There have also been unsubstantiated rumors of militant training camps in the north and in neighboring Cambodia, and reports of foreign-trained militants plotting attacks in Bangkok. Opposition politicians aligned with the Red Shirts have argued that the government is exaggerating the threat as an excuse to keep special security laws in place and thwart any repeat of the protests earlier this year. While many of the elaborate stories coming out of the security forces could use a bit more scrutiny, the Nonthaburi bomb is compelling evidence that something serious is happening.

Do these incidents indicate the emergence of a new armed insurgent movement in Thailand?  It is probably too early to tell whether these are isolated incidents orchestrated by individuals acting alone, or signs of an organized network with a shared political motivation. The government maintains that there is a real security threat – enough to justify the continued application of a special emergency law in Bangkok and several surrounding provinces since the end of the protests – though has stopped short of labeling the movement an insurgency. According to the Bangkok Post, the prime minister has argued that not all the bombings are politically motivated, and that there is likely more than one group involved.

Within the current context, however, several key factors are in place that could create conditions for the emergence of such a group. For example, there is a widely shared sense of bitterness and injustice among the protestors who were dispersed last May. While the government’s move to disperse the protests may have been justified on the whole, especially after two months of remarkable restraint and attempts at negotiations, the show of force on May 19 has left a deep impression on the protestors and has formed the basis of a powerful narrative for drawing people into the movement. The apparent sense of grievance among former protesters is palpable and could serve as justification for an extreme faction to take matters to another level. Anecdotal stories from protestors returning to their villages in the north and northeast indicate that many were received as heroes. Furthermore, the shared experience of two months behind the barricades has likely forged strong networks among the protestors.

The government has effectively closed down political space for the red-shirt protest movement, by arresting their leaders under terrorism charges and shutting down radio stations and websites connected to the movement. While officials continue to allow small-scale protests and have generally let rank-and-file protestors return to their homes, the movement’s leadership has been removed. Justified or not, the result has been to strengthen the hand of hardliners within the movement, and marginalization of moderates who might advocate for peaceful demonstrations and political approaches.

It’s also likely that a new insurgent network would have plenty of access to funds, weapons, and trained recruits. The red-shirt movement is a disparate collection of groups including some former (and possibly current) militia and military members, and powerful political bosses with access to resources and weapons. During the Bangkok protests, a small group of heavily armed men, mostly dressed in black, mingled with the thousands of unarmed protestors. This group, commonly referred to as the “black shirts,” famously disappeared on May 19 and the government believes that most of them remain at large.

However, two critical questions remain unanswered. If there is an emerging network of militants, how closely (if at all) are they associated with the Red Shirts?  The identity and motivation of the people behind these attacks is largely unknown. The picture emerging from the Nonthaburi bomb seems to point to a militant group (or groups) loosely affiliated with the protest movement, but this does not prove the existence of a wider network or connection with previous bombs. It may be some time before we know if these incidents are linked and if there is an organized network with a political motivation.

Second, how much support would there be for an armed revolt within the mainstream red-shirt movement? While the right ingredients may be in place, this does not necessarily mean that mainstream protestors would turn to violence. Furthermore, with elections likely sometime next year, many Red Shirts believe that their allies in the Puea Thai party are likely to win back government. Some argue that if there is a plausible political path to power, the Red Shirts would have no reason to risk everything by turning to violence.

Interpreting these incidents is particularly challenging in the current environment here which is marked by political polarization and misinformation. Beyond anecdotal stories and political assertions, very little is actually known about the Thai people’s perceptions of the current political crisis, especially in the provinces outside of Bangkok. The Asia Foundation is conducting our second annual nation-wide survey, in order to get solid data on the opinions and concerns of the Thai people. (Results will be available in early 2011.)

There continues to be a great deal of speculation on how the political crisis in Thailand will play out, though most would agree that the underlying tensions are far from resolved. The Nonthaburi bombing is a worrisome signal that the crisis could take a more violent course in the future. The Thai government is right to be worried about ongoing threats; however, the government’s efforts to close political space and isolate the red-shirt leadership seems to be making matters worse. Some of the current security measures may well be strengthening the motivation and support for militant factions associated with the Red Shirts. Good faith efforts at political reconciliation and re-opening of political space are needed to balance current security efforts and prevent this dangerous scenario from becoming reality.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s regional director for Conflict and Governance based in Thailand. He can be reached at tparks@asiafound.org.

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