“Are Problems in the South Spreading to Bangkok?”, a Commentary by Puangthong Pawakapan

2017/27, 24 May 2017

Monday’s bombing of Bangkok’s King Mongkut Hospital occurred on the third anniversary of Thailand’s most recent coup d’etat, which saw a junta calling itself the the National Council for Peace and Order remove the caretaker Phuea Thai Party government. The NCPO continues to govern the country. While there has been no claim of responsibility for the bombing at time of writing, the latest incident adds to concerns that the violence that has plagued in the three Muslim-majority provinces of southern Thailand during the past dozen years may  now be escalating to Bangkok.

The hospital bombing should be viewed against the broader picture of a history of similar incidents used by different political and militant groups in Thailand, especially on significant anniversaries and at symbolic locations. On 15 May, a bomb went off in front of the National Theatre at Bangkok’s central Sanam Luang, close to the site at which the cremation of the late King Bhumibol will take place in October. Preparations for that ceremony mean that security personnel have had a visible presence in the area for some time. That such an incident could happen in the vicinity of a place with symbolic importance and direct associations with the Thai monarchy was a slap in the face of the junta.
On the eve of Chakri Day, 5 April, a bomb also went off on Ratchadamnoen Road, a few hundred meters from Sanam Luang. Police initially denied that the 15 May incident involved a bomb, and the Thai press treated the earlier 5 April incident as only minor news, possibly at the request of the Thai authorities eager to tamp down worries among members of the public. Though these three recent bombings have not resulted in any deaths, authorities have admitted that the explosives used in all of them were to devices encountered in the South and bore the hallmarks of the Malay-Muslim insurgents there.[1]
Early in the morning of 7 April, the night of Chakri Day, 26 bombs went off in the three southernmost provinces of Thailand. These bombings recalled the string of twelve deadly bombings on the queen’s most recent birthday, 12 August 2016. These incidents struck in the resort of Hua Hin in Prachuap Khirikhan Provinces, along with Phuket and Surat Thani Provinces—two other areas popular with tourists. Adding to its symbolic value, Hua Hin is home to the favourite seaside palace of the late King Bhumibol and of Queen Sirikit. Police General Suchart Theerasawat confirmed that all of the explosions on 12 August were related and that the devices used were similar to those employed in insurgent attacks in the country’s far southern provinces.[2]

The degree of coordination that has characterized these bombings, as well as their symbolic targets and timing, indicates that the series of incidents are unlikely to be the work of  “Red Shirts” opposed to the NCPO junta. The Red Shirts are well aware that their enemies’ accusations of their opposition to the monarchy have proved politically effective. Most Red Shirt hard-liners were arrested or fled the country in the aftermath of the May 2014 coup. Further, in October 2016 authorities arrested more than 40 Muslim activists and students from the South in the area near Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng University students..  as Authorities believed that they were part of a failed plot to attack the Asian Cooperation Dialogue summit meeting held in Bangkok during 9-10 October of last year. Nine of them were charged with serious crimes.[3]
Further evidence concerning this week’s bombing in Bangkok is awaited, and while the possibility that opponents of the junta—whether within the military itself or in Thai society more broadly—were responsible remains on the minds of many analysts. But this recent series of incidents may also suggest that the some of the violence engulfing the three southernmost provinces of Thailand is spreading to Bangkok.

[1]“Raboet ching buem na ronglakhon…phai ngiap faitai lam krung?” [A real bomb! Explosion in front of the National Theatre…a southern threat creeping into Bangkok?],   Isranews Agency (Online), 17 May 2017, https://www.isranews.org/south-news/scoop/56297-real-56297.html; Buem ro.pho. phramongkut yong song het puan krangkrung chi raboet chut diaokan – thathai kho.so.cho?” [A bomb at King Mongkut hospital links to two causes, use similar device – challenging the junta’s power?], Isranews Agency (Online), 22 May 2017, https://www.isranews.org/south-news/scoop/56452-hospital_56452.html

[2] Wave of Thai Bombings ‘Bears Hallmarks’ of Muslim Separatists”, Time, 15 August 2016. http://time.com/4452074/thailand-bombings-hua-hin-phuket-muslim-separatists/

[3] “ความคืบหน้าคดีกวาดจับหน้ารามฯ หลังข่าวคาร์บอมบ์ 9 จำเลยยังอยู่ในคุก” [Khwam khuebna khadi kwatchap na ram lang khao car bom khao chamloei yang yu nai khuk] (Update on the arrests in front of Ramkhamhaeng University after news of a car bomb, nine defendants remained in prison), Prachatai, 5 April 2017. http://prachatai.org/journal/2017/04/70904

Dr Puangthong Pawakapan is Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. She is currently Visiting Senior Fellow at the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.