Commentary / World

Thai terror blast a symptom of deeper illness

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Thailand remains Southeast Asia’s sick man and the bad news is, its condition is getting worse. Domestically, a military-drafted constitution has been rejected by a majority of lawmakers — ironically all of whom were appointed by the junta. It remains to be seen if the failed constitution was indeed a ploy by the military government to stay in power longer by deliberately starting the process to draft a constitution all over again.

The version of the constitution to be drafted in the near future by the military junta, no matter how it looks, will determine the Thai political landscape for years to come. This is particularly important now that Thailand is approaching the end of King Bhumibol Adulyadel’s reign. Key figures in the military and the old establishment are determined to preserve their positions of power during this critical royal transitional period and are therefore obliged to design a constitution aimed at keeping future civilian governments weak, rather than empowering them.

Certainly, the future constitution and the royal transition will further destabilize the Thai state. But in the past few weeks, an added tragedy has shaken the nation. On Aug. 17, a bomb exploded near a Hindu shrine in the crowded Rachaprasong intersection in Bangkok, killing 20 people and injuring more than 100. Immediately, the junta’s spokesperson announced that some political opposition groups might have been behind the terrorist act. This opened the door for the public to play along with rumors of whether former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra could have been involved in it in some ways. Thaksin was overthrown in a coup in 2006 and has since lived in exile in Dubai.

Rachaprasong is a major business district, as well as a battle zone where almost 100 Red Shirts were killed in 2010. It must be a cursed place, although ironically, it also houses one of the most famous Hindu gods in Thailand. At first, many may overlook the location of the attack, but ultimately it could prove crucial. Erawan Shrine, as it is known both locally and by tourists, is a popular spot and a top tourist attraction. If one really wanted to cause maximum impact, this would be an obvious target.

But Thai culture is Buddhist and values religious tolerance. Such a religious location is not the kind of target any domestic rebel would choose, which suggested to me right from the beginning that those behind the attack may not have been Thai. Such an assertion is not to point fingers at other faiths, but merely to say that if this were about domestic politics, Erawan Shrine would not be the place for that particular drama to play out.

Furthermore, the scale of the damage was too great and too messy. If someone wanted to fulfill a domestic agenda, such carnage would be unnecessary.

Thailand has seen incidents in the past where someone might throw a grenade that injures a few people to get their political message across, but that is where it generally ends.

Initial analyses appeared to suggest that the bomb could be related to the Muslim separatist conflict in southern Thailand. However, violence connected with that unrest has over the years been limited to the three southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat and never the capital. The conflict in Thailand’s deep south still lacks an international element.

Recent developments have revealed that it is highly likely this terrorist act was linked to Thailand’s deportation of Uighur refugees back to China, where the Muslim minority has faced oppression. The perpetrators may have wanted to punish the Thai state by staging a large-scale attack, in particular by killing or injuring people from China (note that Erawan Shrine is popular among Chinese tourists). A series of arrests of suspects with Uighur connections is now backing up the theory that Thailand has been attacked for the first time by an international terrorist group.

Of course, the attack was made possible mainly because of a failure by the government’s intelligence apparatus. Security is very lax in Bangkok and authorities take it for granted that in a Buddhist country nobody would commit a large-scale terrorist attack. This attitude was proven wrong by the tragic incident at Erawan Shrine.

The sheer scale of the attack threatens to dent confidence in public safety and investor confidence in the economy. That explains why Thailand won’t show signs of recovery anytime soon. Both domestic complications, with the controversial constitution and the imminent royal succession, and the terrorist attack could have long-term effects on Thailand.

Thailand is no longer a stranger to international terrorism. Indeed, the Prayuth Chan-ocha government has already warned that follow-up attacks could be launched in the future. This could put Thailand on par with Indonesia, which has long suffered from global terrorism.

In terms of Thailand’s domestic troubles, society will be more repressed and politics will be more intense. The royal succession will not be the end of the Thai political drama. What comes next after King Bhumibol, and how the military and the old establishment will be able to manipulate his successor are questions pointing to a new set of troubles Thailand will have to overcome.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center of Southeast Asian Studies.