Bangkok Bombs Shatter Uneasy Peace
August 20, 2015.
Thailand is notorious for civil unrest, but this week's deadly attack in the capital is unprecedented.
- It will take time to uncover the truth behind the Bangkok bombings, but historical patterns and strategic incentives point to certain groups over others.
- Regardless of the culprit, the escalation of violence will deepen Thailand's political and economic uncertainty.
- The ruling military junta will use the bombings to strengthen authoritarian measures and try to prolong its rule.
- The long-term significance will depend on the perpetrators and their intent or ability to continue the campaign.
Bangkok is familiar with unrest of all varieties, but it has rarely seen an incident quite like this. At least 22 people were killed and 125 injured Aug. 17 when a pipe bomb exploded at the popular Erawan shrine in the center of the city. The blast, described by Thai Prime Minister and junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha as the country's "worst-ever incident," took place at a time when the shrine was filled with tourists and the streets packed with traffic. At least 49 foreigners were among those killed or wounded. The following day, another bomb was hurled off a bridge over the Chao Phraya river toward a pier before exploding in the water, preventing any casualties. Police said it too was a pipe bomb of similar construction. In both cases, according to Stratfor sources, ball bearings carpeted the scene — shrapnel clearly intended to cause casualties.
A young male was caught on video dropping a backpack at the spot of the Aug. 17 blast; investigators say he appeared to be working with as many as 10 others. But at this point, it remains unclear who exactly is behind either attack. Thailand has dealt for years with two main sources of violence: long-simmering political upheaval and a separatist insurgency in the Muslim-Malay southernmost provinces. The bombings, however, do not neatly fit the pattern of either conflict. The political opposition, particularly the so-called Red Shirts, have preferred symbolic attacks with minimal casualties. The southern insurgents have rarely ventured outside the deep south.
The other line of investigation points to direct or indirect foreign involvement. Islamist and other regional militants have indeed used Thai territory, including Bangkok, to meet or plan attacks. Foreign militants have even occasionally targeted Thailand, such as when Hezbollah-linked militants bungled preparations for an apparent attack on the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok in 2012. Al Qaeda also tried and failed to hit the same target with a truck bomb in 1994. Thai officials have suggested the three suspects they have pictures of may be foreign and could be working with locals. This, however, is still speculation. And no foreign militant group has claimed responsibility, something that may be expected if the group also wanted to attract public attention.
With the investigation still in its earliest stages, and false leads and information emerging from the initial confusion, it is too early to determine who was behind the attack. In the near term, the implications are the same: a strike against the tourism industry, another hit to the Thai economy, and a consolidation of the military government. But the longer-term implications depend on who is ultimately found responsible — and whether their actions mark a new direction for Thai violence.
Links to the Deep South?
Thai authorities have largely ruled out connections to the Muslim insurgency in the south, noting in part that the type of bomb used is not common to attacks in the south. Further, the government has been able in recent years to constrain the reach of the southern militants, even as the pace of militant attacks has increased. Finally, there are elements within the southern militancy that are engaged in discussions with the government with the intent of bringing the bulk of the fighting to a conclusion.
Thailand's Geographic Challenge
Thailand's Malay-Muslim militants rarely attack targets far outside Thailand's three southernmost provinces. Militants have historically spared Bangkok in large part to avoid provoking a heavy military response, and possibly because they simply lack the ability to effectively carry out attacks in the capital. Nonetheless, the fractious, amorphous insurgency is reportedly beset with a generational divide — and some younger militants allegedly believe that the violence must escalate for the militants to be taken seriously at the negotiating table. Younger insurgents reportedly defied senior leaders and carried out a 2013 bombing at a hotel in Hat Yai. And just because the insurgents had not attacked Bangkok — a sprawling city notorious for corruption and lax law enforcement — does not mean they could not, even under military rule.
The southern separatists routinely wage attacks involving multiple improvised explosive devices (sometimes vehicle-borne) in crowded urban areas, expanding the range and tempo of attacks in recent years. In July 2014, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device in Betong, a border town popular with Malaysian tourists, killed or injured at least 36 people. In May alone, at least 50 IEDs detonated or were defused in the Deep South. Several pipe bombs have also been set off since the beginning of the year. Most notably, in April, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device was detonated inside a mall parking garage on the tourist hot spot island of Koh Samui. Like the Aug. 17 bombing, the attack was believed to have been intended to disrupt Thailand's critical tourism sector and to demonstrate the rebels' ability to operate farther from home. An aborted attack involving a large device on the popular tourist island of Phuket in 2013 seems to have had the same objectives.
By comparison, an attack this bloody by radical Red Shirt supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra would be unprecedented and seemingly counterproductive. Small, sporadic acts of violence — often involving small IEDs or M79 grenades — are common in Bangkok during periods of heightened political discontent. These so-called political intimidation attacks, however, typically occur late at night at isolated politically symbolic targets to minimize casualties. The Aug. 17 bombing was clearly intended to maximize casualties and did not directly strike a symbol of the junta's power.
Thai authorities have signaled that responsibility may indeed lie in the Red Shirt heartland. The attacks did take place in a symbolic location near where the military cracked down violently on Red Shirt protests in 2010. But Red Shirt radicals would be more likely to target junta or government sites, rather than a religious shrine filled with tourists. The location of the Aug. 17 blast — on the corner of a busy intersection at rush hour — made it highly likely that many of those injured or killed would be local taxi drivers, the majority of whom come from Red Shirt-dominated northern and northeastern Thailand.
Since the coup, the self-exiled Thaksin has lain low in hopes of accelerating a return to elections, which his supporters would almost assuredly win again on a level playing field. In the meantime, Thaksin hopes to enable the junta to take full responsibility for the country's myriad economic and political woes. The military government regularly finds reasons to delay elections (currently penciled in for the end of 2016 at the earliest) and is pushing forward a new charter that would largely neuter the political power of rural populists like Thaksin or his sister, ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. In spite of this, Thaksin has not shown signs he plans to change tack. Conducting this type of attack would cost the Red Shirt movement the moral high ground that Thaksin and his allies rely on to maintain political and international support.
Both Thaksin and Yingluck vehemently condemned this week's attacks, and a leading Red Shirt group denounced the bombings as "satanic." Thaksin does not control the anti-junta movement with an iron fist, so — as with the southern insurgents — an attack by a radical grassroots cell acting on its own behalf cannot be ruled out completely. Nonetheless, such a scenario is highly unlikely.
Attention has also focused on the possibility that responsibility lies with external forces such as the Islamic State, self-radicalized jihadists, or Chinese Uighurs (though Thai authorities began downplaying possible links to foreign actors on Aug. 20). Several Southeast Asian jihadist groups rose to prominence in the early 2000s, including Jemaah Islamiyah, which targeted multiple Bangkok hotels in a foiled plot in 2003. While these have largely been dismantled, Islamic State influence among regional splinter groups has been growing, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia. Affiliated militants would have the tradecraft and motivation to pull off a mass-casualty attack.
Though Bangkok has in the past avoided most major external militant attacks, it has not always been for lack of trying. Across Southeast Asia, there has been growing concern that those returning from the wars in Syria and Iraq may carry out acts on their own or use their experience to build new regional networks. For example, Filipinos returning from Afghanistan, where they had interaction with al Qaeda, spawned the Abu Sayyaf rebel group in the Philippines. Though the Islamic State rarely shows much overt interest in Southeast Asia, local extremists and self-radicalization are far from anomalies.
Meanwhile, Chinese media have been speculating that the attack may be retaliation for Thailand's recent deportation of 109 Uighurs to China. Some Uighur militants do appear to have been attempting to develop ties with Southeast Asian jihadist groups and transit through the region to join fighters in the Middle East. Still, such an attack by the Uighurs would be unprecedented for Southeast Asia and potentially counterproductive to the Uighur cause. Beijing's focus on the Uighurs might just be the stock response to any regional militancy, but there is still the remote possibility of a Uighur splinter group.
Often more radical members of a revolutionary party or protest group become frustrated by lack of success and split off to engage in more savage tactics. This may have been the case with the Red Shirts, Uighurs or southern insurgents. Any of these, or perhaps a lone wolf or grassroots cell, could have carried out the attack, which was not tactically difficult. The ambiguity will make the investigation complicated — and discerning the implications of the attack far from certain.
Thailand is already coping with a hit to its vital tourism industry. Militancy in the south rarely interrupted the flow of foreign tourists, and even Bangkok's endless political unrest has scared off visitors only intermittently. This resiliency to violence has earned the country the nickname "Teflon Thailand." But deadly attacks targeting tourists in Bangkok are quite different from mass protests, which can be avoided more easily. Stratfor sources in Bangkok say the second bomb in particular has struck fear into the local business community, as the prospect of a wave of bombings heightens unease. Already, several countries have issued warnings against nonessential travel to Bangkok. Thai tourism is also becoming increasingly dependent on Chinese tourists, and at least 20 of the injured on Aug. 17 were Chinese. Rumors of Uighur involvement will only make this worse.
General economic forecasts for Thailand are already weak. Extended military rule, natural disasters, and now this new bombing will all work to deter foreign investors from increasing their stakes in Thailand. Some may even continue to reduce their investment. With more stable Southeast Asian countries offering competitive cost and infrastructure advantages, investors are finding other lucrative, less risky opportunities elsewhere in the region.
Even without follow-up attacks, the Bangkok bombing will prolong and add uncertainty to the country's slow-moving political transition. In the short term, criticism of the junta — from both its supporters and opponents — will likely quiet, as it did in the months immediately following the coup in May 2014. This will give junta leaders more space to navigate controversial issues such as the annual military reshuffle and the unveiling of the new draft charter in September. Indeed, the junta appears to have seized the moment by submitting its potentially controversial Cabinet reshuffle to the Thai king on Aug. 18.
The long-term implications, however, will depend on who perpetrated the attacks. A splinter group of Red Shirts or southern insurgents would change the dynamics of internal strife. The former could shift military attention to the north and east while the latter would shift it deeper into the south. If the military feels compelled to crack down more on the rural Thais who are a traditional support base for the Red Shirts, not only could it lead to a low-grade civil war, but the external political condemnation — and possible economic responses — could be significant.
If the attacks prove to be externally coordinated or inspired, the impact will be far different. A domestic self-radicalized group or individual could have the least overall impact — catching the perpetrator would largely end this wave of attacks, and the prevention measures that followed would be socially based. But if the bombings mark the expansion of international or regional Islamist militancy into Thailand, then it is not only Bangkok that would be on alert for follow-up actions, but the rest of the region as well. A shift of attention by the Islamic State or the rise of a new regional group would threaten much of Southeast Asia. And any links to Uighurs could draw China into a much more assertive security role.
If current military leaders are unable to curb the violence, continued attacks in Bangkok or elsewhere could widen splits at senior levels of the military, exposing the country to deeper uncertainty. Military splits have turned violent in the past. If such a breakdown takes place during the impending royal succession process, then two of three main pillars of Thailand's delicate balance of power (the monarchy and the military) will be in turmoil at a time when the third (the political sphere) will be ready to mobilize supporters and claw back a share of power.