Bangkok blasts could delay return of Thai democracy

The regime may use the Dec. 31 bombings to stay in power.

In the wake of coordinated bombings that targeted tourist areas here on New Year's Eve, Thailand's military-installed government has sought to pin blame on disgruntled ex-politicians trying to destabilize the regime.

"It is likely related to people who lost their political benefits," Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told reporters Monday, citing preliminary intelligence reports.

Three people were killed, and more than 30 injured – including nine foreigners – in eight blasts across Bangkok. The US and other Western governments have issued warnings to citizens visiting Thailand's capital, though none have urged travelers to stay away.

As investigators search for further clues as to who planted the bombs, another casualty could be Thailand's timetable for a return to democratic rule after a Sept. 19 military coup.

Analysts say the regime could use the threat of further unrest as an excuse to hold on to power, as its support base begins to waiver. It took a hit last month when it bungled an initiative to curb currency speculation, sparking a stock-market meltdown, and opinion polls suggest voters are growing impatient with its rule.

"Even before the bomb blasts, things weren't going well for a return to democracy. Now it's becoming murkier.... The military may use this as a pretext to stay in power longer and postpone the elections," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Prior to the blasts, which cap a year of political and social turmoil in Thailand, members of the ruling military council had already warned it could take up to 15 months to write a new constitution and hold elections. Civil-society groups have accused the military of backsliding on this timetable and interfering in the charter-drafting process. A short list of appointees to write the constitution was approved Tuesday.

An army officer close to the ruling council denies, however, that there was any bid to delay the transition. "They know exactly that if they cling to power there will be a problem. They're trying to find an exit strategy," he says.

Last September, after several months of protests, political stalemate, and a disputed election, the military swiftly deposed then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They accused Mr. Thaksin – now in exile in Beijing pending a graft probe – of corruption, disrespect to the monarchy, and dividing the nation – and more recently, of conspiring to undermine their regime.

As word of Sunday's bombings spread, Thai officials began to apportion blame to "political undercurrents," a catchall phrase for Thakin's supporters, including sympathizers in the security forces. Other theories, however, turned on factional rivalry within the Thai Army, which dominates the ruling council.

In a handwritten letter, Thaksin denied any involvement in the violence, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. "I strongly condemn this act [of bombing] and I swear that I never ever think of hurting the people and destroying the country's credibility for my own political gain," he wrote.

Despite an escalating insurgency in the Muslim-dominated south, where terrorist tactics are widely used, government officials have downplayed any connection to Thai insurgents or foreign militant networks. Mr. Surayud said Monday there was a "slim possibility" of any linkages to the south, where a century-old separatist struggle revived in January 2004.

Some analysts concur, saying the attacks didn't fit the profile.

"The insurgents clearly have the technical capacities, but you have to wonder, do they have the infrastructure in Bangkok to do eight bombs?" says Zachary Abuza, a politics professor at Simmons College in Boston and author of a book on the Thai insurgency. Others are skeptical, however, of the rush to rule out domestic militants. Sanit Nakajitti, director of PSA Asia Pacific Group, a security consultancy in Bangkok, says the use of watch timers and ammonium nitrate was consistent with the bombs made by southern insurgents, and said recent police intelligence reports had warned of an imminent bombing campaign in Bangkok.

Mr. Sanit, a former police officer, says the investigation is being swayed by political pressure. "The problem is that military intelligence, the police, and other intelligence agencies have been given a goal. They must come out with the results that this [violence] is from the old powers," he says. "It's sad. They can't act freely."

Efforts to clear up the mystery could be further complicated by friction between the Army and police. Extra troops were deployed in Bangkok in response to the bombings, and the ruling council has assigned military officers to assist the police investigation. Analysts say this reflects underlying distrust among military top brass toward a police force that it suspects may still be loyal to Thaksin, who is a retired police colonel.

Tensions between the security forces rose in August when an off-duty Army officer was arrested while driving a car laden with explosives near Thaksin's house. Four other Army officers were later arrested and charged with attempted murder. The case sparked uproar from senior Army officers who openly questioned the veracity of the car-bomb plot, which has dropped out of sight since the coup.

In recent years, while Al Qaeda-backed militants have carried out atrocities on Western targets in other Southeast Asian capitals, Bangkok went unscathed, bolstering its reputation as a safe tourist destination. Even a surge in killings in the south, where bombings of government and civilian targets have multiplied over the last three years, had apparently been contained there, to the relief of Thai tourist officials who watched Bali reel after two major terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2005.

Sunday's bombings, coming at the peak of Thailand's tourism season, prompted warnings of more attacks and worried tour operators about the effect on business in 2007.

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