Three days after a string of six bombs rocked the Thai capital of Bangkok, the true culprits and motivation behind the strategically timed and well-planned blasts is still unclear.
What is clear is that the stability narrative that helped to bring Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and his ruling Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP) to elected power is now in doubt, just weeks after his previous coup-installed regime lifted various security orders in a transition back to democracy.
Two of the bombs targeted military facilities including the armed forces’ headquarters, two detonated near an office tower owned by King Power Group, a major corporate contributor to the PPRP, and two exploded near a government complex that houses various state and security-related agencies.
The blasts were designed for maximum political impact, coinciding with an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit meeting where regional and global top envoys were in attendance, and taking the shine off a big stage occasion where Prayut was lauded for restoring democracy after five years of military rule.
Critics say the transition from junta to elected rule is incomplete, with the armed forces and its backers manipulating the electoral playing field in PPRP’s favor, and through a military-appointed 250-member Senate that assured Prayut won the premiership in a parliamentary vote.
Various political actors would appear to have motivation to launch the delicately timed attacks, ranging from ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents in the country’s southernmost region, “Red Shirt” activists peeved by the military’s sustained control over politics, and military factions that may be poised to lose to Prayut’s Queen’s Guard clique at a reshuffle set for announcement next month.
“It was the perfect time to put Prayut on the defensive,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a security expert and until recently advisor to the defense minister. “It was a cheap shot with high results.”
Arrests and allegations so far point towards the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the main rebel group in Thailand’s conflict-ridden Deep South region encompassing the three Malay Muslim majority provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala and areas of adjacent Songkhla province.
On August 2, two young ethnic Malay Muslim men suspected of dropping a suspicious object outside of Bangkok’s police headquarters were apprehended at a checkpoint while riding a public bus in the upper south province of Chumphon destined for Narathiwat.
Authorities claimed that the men matched the identities of figures seen on CCTV footage from the police facility. A security intelligence officer based in the Deep South told Asia Times that the men did not have criminal records, but noted that the separatist movement is now known to be recruiting a new generation of young insurgents.
Insurgents have launched multiple bombings on security forces in the ethno-religious minority region in retaliation for alleged abuses after a suspected rebel fighter fell into a coma at a Pattani-based military detention center on July 26.
One ex-Thai security official suggests the bombings could have been a revenge attack staged by younger fighters without BRN’s older leadership’s approval, an assessment he made based on the detainees’ apparent “unfamiliarity” with Bangkok’s terrain. He said officials expect to nab ten to 15 more suspects in coming days.
Security expert Panitan said intelligence agencies had noted some of the attackers’ movements but failed to “pinpoint” the situation in time. He said intelligence agencies observed five teams that reputedly surveyed the targets before the attacks.
While multiple security officials quoted in local media suggested that the detainees could have links to BRN, independent sources told Asia Times it is also possible they were supported by politicians or rival security force factions to destabilize Prayut’s already wobbly coalition government.
One Bangkok-based foreign security analyst notes that the explosive devises’ timed triggers indicated significant planning by relatively well-trained assailants, pointing more towards BRN than Red Shirts, he said. The fact that the low-grade bombs did not use TNT or RDX-type explosives, he said, indicates either a lack of access to the materials or lack of intent to inflict mass casualties.
Security expert Panitan said that shrapnel found at the blast sites revealed bomb materials that were “quite new” and not used in the country’s southern conflict. He said he attackers leveraged into the fact thousands of police were deployed to secure the ASEAN meeting, leaving other areas of the capital lightly patrolled. An estimated four people were hurt by the low-grade blasts.
The shadowy BRN exercises the greatest degree of control over cell-based, on-the-ground insurgents in the Deep South.
Significantly, the group eased the tempo and intensity of its campaign in the wake of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death in October 2016, but have recently ramped up operations in a clear signal to Prayut’s military-aligned government.
Some analysts suggest BRN could have orchestrated the attacks in the capital, a tactic rarely used in the 15-year-old conflict confined mainly to the Deep South region, as a strategic escalation aimed to gain negotiating leverage vis-à-vis the new government as peace talks stall.
A BRN spokesman denied the group was behind the attacks, as did sources with links to the group who spoke on condition of anonymity to Asia Times. One diplomatic source, however, notes that BRN has initially denied responsibility for past attacks only to accept blame much later.
That was the case in the so-called “Mother’s Day” bombings in August 2016, a string of bombs launched across seven upper southern provinces that coincided with then Queen Sirikit’s birthday and targeted tourist areas including the Hua Hin beach resort, where the royal family has a palace.
Thai media have quoted security sources claiming Friday’s bombings may have been orchestrated by the same insurgents responsible for the Mother’s Day attacks, which were especially symbolic considering Prayut’s and then-defense minister, now Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan’s Queen’s Guard backgrounds.
Then as now, government officials have reflexively blamed the “Red Shirt” protest group linked with coup-ousted ex-premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra and long-time bête noire of the military-backed royalist establishment.
Khaosod News, a local publication, reported that army chief General Apirat Kongsompong linked Friday’s Bangkok bombings to Red Shirts and those “controlling them”, a veiled but clear reference to the self-exiled Shinawatra clan. The publication, for unclear reasons, later retracted the story.
Neither the Red Shirts nor their traditionally aligned Peua Thai party would appear to have an immediate motivation – or even popular legitimacy – for launching the attacks.
Red Shirt leaders formed a new political party ahead of March’s elections but fared poorly at the polls, winning only eight seats in the 500-seat lower house of parliament. The Peua Thai party, which won the most seats at the election, are known to be biding their time for a no-confidence debate they hope will knock Prayut from power.
Still, there are reasons to be skeptical that BRN was solely responsible for the attacks.
Since the Deep South’s chronic conflict was restoked in 2004, insurgents are known to have been used by other political groups, including elected politicians and even security forces, to carry out mercenary attacks for a wide range of suspected purposes and interests.
Many Malay Muslims with links to BRN are known to have connections to elite Thais across the political spectrum.
Despite beliefs and claims that both the 2016 Mother’s Day bombings and now the 2019 Bangkok blasts may have been orchestrated or supported by political groups, there is also quiet speculation among some analysts and diplomats that the incidents may be more directly related to conflict and rivalry among security forces.
Those bombing attacks – as well as the Erawan Shrine bombing in 2015, the country’s worst ever terror attack that killed 20 including foreign tourists – all occurred in August, prior to high-stakes annual military and police reshuffles where top positions are negotiated and decided, and factional divides in the forces accentuated.
Panitan said that it’s possible “ex-officers” peeved by the recent shift of power from Prawit to Prayut at the defense ministry could be the “masterminds” behind Friday’s blasts, using BRN operatives to “make it difficult to track back to them.”
Though with no hard evidence to back the narrative, there is speculation among certain observers that Friday’s bombings could be related to ongoing negotiations for positions among security agencies, including most sensitively between King’s and Queen’s Guard factions in the military.
Adding fuel to that speculation, Prayut, who is also defense minister, announced on July 31 that he would take control of the police’s Department of Special Investigations (DSI), a move that could have accentuated military-police frictions that reached fever pitch on occasion during junta rule.
Rogue police officials were caught delivering low-grade bombs to Red Shirt protesters during 2010 street actions that fatally ended in a lethal military crackdown. Police, like everyone else who would appear to have certain motivation for orchestrating Friday’s bombings, have predictably denied responsibility.