Pornchai Kittiwongsakul / AFP / Getty Images

Blast hits Bangkok amid tense politics, deep divisions

Analysis: Deadly attack in Bangkok signals a break in the uneasy calm of military junta’s tight grip on Thailand

explosion at a religious shrine that killed at least 20 in a bustling Bangkok tourist district Monday shattered an uneasy calm that had settled over much of the country since a military takeover last year. No one has yet claimed responsibility, and the government has remained mum on suspects — but a recent history of complex political divisions as well as a small-scale separatist insurgency that occasionally spills over into limited violence in the country’s far south could provide clues into possible motives behind the attack.

"We still don't know for sure who did this and why," Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon told reporters late Monday. "We are not sure if it is politically motivated, but they aim to harm our economy, and we will hunt them down."

Police said a bomb caused the blast at the Erawan Shrine, which features Hindu imagery but is extremely popular among Thailand’s Buddhists, who account for the majority of the country’s population. The site, in the heart of the capital’s high-end shopping district, is considered spiritually powerful and draws massive numbers of tourists from East Asia.

The attack came against a backdrop of furious political discord in Thailand, which is divided by a decade-old political rivalry between the country’s military establishment and the powerful Shinawatra family.

That conflict has been the proximate cause of two recent military coups. One overthrew and exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, and another in May 2014 ended the premiership of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Since the May coup, the military government has severely restricted public protest, saying it wants to maintain stability. But stability has been fleeting in the past few years amid periodic mass protests between so-called red shirts — mostly rural and poor northern Thais who support the Shinawatras’ populist political programs — and their largely middle- and upper-class Bangkok-based opponents, who are called yellow shirts and are widely viewed as elites linked to the country’s powerful military, bureaucracy and royalists.

The military government’s National Council for Peace and Order party, headed by Prime Minster Prayuth Chan-ocha, draws largely from such elites and stridently opposes the agenda pursued by the Shinawatras.

Clashes between pro- and anti-Shinawatra demonstrators have claimed scores of lives, including about 30 killed in the six months leading up to last year’s coup.

Such tensions have been widely blamed, although usually inconclusively, for other bomb attacks in the sprawling Thai capital. Monday’s was the first deadly attack of its kind in the city this year.

Twin pipe bombs at a luxury shopping mall in February caused little damage, and a grenade lobbed at Bangkok’s Criminal Court in March caused seven injuries. Government and anti-government forces blamed each other for the attacks.

In the deadliest previous such attack in Bangkok, a series of bombs killed three people and wounded scores more on New Year’s Eve in 2006 — three months after the coup that unseated Thaksin — in yet another unsolved case.

“Stability has improved since the military took over, at least on the surface,” said Ambika Ahuja, a Thailand expert at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. “But while the clampdown on dissent from anti-military activists has been broadly successful, there is no consensus on how to move the country forward, even among those currently in power.”

That lack of consensus leaves room for the Shinawatras, who are severely constrained domestically but have retained a sizable following in the country.

Perhaps more important, Monday’s attack is a sign of instability, which could worsen simmering factionalism in the military between moderate and hawkish camps. A military reshuffle is planned for October, and analysts say those divisions could lead to violence.

The country has been troubled for more than 10 years by an insurgency in its far south near the Thailand-Malaysia border, where ethnic Malay Muslim rebels have been conducting a low-grade guerrilla campaign. The conflict is rooted in grievances that date back decades and in a rejection of Thai rule and the presence of majority Thai Buddhists in the largely Malay region.

According to Deep South Watch, a website that monitors violence in southern Thailand, several thousand people have been killed since the insurgency began in earnest in 2001. Most of that violence has been confined to small areas in the border region, far from the capital, and there is no indication that the southern insurgency is linked to Monday’s attacks.

But analysts believe the threat of violence from that conflict, though apparently on the decline, could still affect other parts of the country. “The south Thailand insurgency has grown less lethal over the past year, but there are worrying indications militants may have expanded operations beyond the traditional conflict zone of the four southernmost provinces,” according to a report (PDF) by the International Crisis Group last month.

“This is one of the biggest attacks outside of the deep south in Thailand since the military government took over, so the ability of the government to respond and find the perpetrators will be crucial to the stability and legitimacy of the government,” said Aim Sinpeng, a Southeast Asia political expert and an assistant professor at the University of Sydney. “When the military coup happened, it was to restore order and stability, so if the regime cannot do this for Bangkok residents, the stability of the government would be in question.”

Regardless of who was behind Monday’s attack, Thailand’s deep divisions are unlikely to be bridged anytime soon. “The army as an institution may believe stability is its top priority,” said Ahuja. “But how to achieve that stability in the long term cannot be agreed upon among those who currently hold power.” 

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