Thailand’s junta overwhelmed by bombing investigation

Thai soldiers at the location where a second suspect of the Bangkok blast was arrested [Reuters]

Police hunting for the perpetrators of Thailand’s deadliest bombing arrested a second foreign suspect today (1 September), Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said. But unless it can achieve an early breakthrough in the investigation, the military regime could be forced to call in outside expertise.

The 17 August attack on a Bangkok Hindu shrine killed 20 people and injured more than 100. 14 foreigners were among those killed in a blast the military government said was aimed at dealing a blow to an already ailing economy.

>> Read: Thailand blast exposes the country’s divisions

Junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said the bombing the “worst ever attack” on Thailand, and that a man seen on CCTV may have belonged to an anti-government group based in the country’s north-east.

This appears to be a reference to the rural power base of the country’s red-shirt movement, which is loyal to the ousted prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her exiled brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was also overthrown in a coup in 2006.

The army seized power in a bloodless coup in 2014, toppling the remnants of the Pheu Thai Party-led government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army chief led the coup, has ruled largely unchallenged since.

Members of the opposition red-shirt movement, which supported the ousted governments of Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra, have objected to what they say are clumsy attempts to cast the blame for the bombing in their direction.

And after police announced an initial 1 million baht (€25,000) reward for information leading to the arrest of the attacker or attackers, the red-shirts said they would double that reward.

So far, two men have been arrested. The unidentified man police have in custody has denied any involvement, despite the discovery of bomb-making material, including fuses, at his home in another suburb in the Thai capital on Saturday (29 August).

But it is believed that he is not the man in a yellow T-shirt and dark-framed glasses who was identified from a surveillance video as the chief suspect in the bombing.

The suspect was arrested in Sa Kaeo province, which is east of Bangkok on the border with Cambodia, Prayuth said. The suspect was being transferred to Bangkok for questioning.

“We have arrested one more, he is not a Thai,” Prayuth told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting. He did not elaborate. The first man arrested is reportedly not Thai either. Their nationality remains unknown.

Comic scene

In a rather comic scene, the police claimed the 1 million baht reward for themselves. The national police chief said they didn’t get any outside tips and the police were able to arrest the first suspect solely by their own efforts.

Other theories about the possible perpetrators are related with the deportation by Thailand last month of some 100 Uighurs to China, prompting violent protests outside a Thai consulate in Turkey.

Many Uighurs – a Muslim-Turkic ethnic group – have sought to flee what they say is repression in China to reach Turkey, which has previously provided them with Turkish passports. The group deported to China last month were among a group of more than 300 Uighurs detained in Thailand en route to Turkey in March last year.

>> Read: EU condemns Thailand’s deportation of Uighurs to China

Unless it can achieve an early breakthrough in the investigation, the regime may face pressure to call in outside expertise. Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, has offered his country’s assistance and other allies, principally the US, may get involved, especially if a link emerges to international terrorist groups like Islamic State.

Bangkok has endured a decade of deadly political violence amid a power struggle between the military – backed by the middle class and elite – and the poor led by Thaksin Shinawatra.

But anti-junta groups have never conducted such a large attack, or one that was apparently aimed at a tourist area.

Political battles

Thailand’s main opposition party is fighting a political battle with the junta over a push to change the constitution, saying that the changes “totally disregard the sovereignty of the Thai people”.

Under this charter, “true power belongs to agencies and mechanisms which are designed to maintain the junta’s power without checks and balances”, the Pheu Thai Party said in a statement.

The National Reform Council (NRC) will vote on the draft on 6 September and if it passes, it will be put to a referendum in January. It needs the support of just over half the NRC’s 247 members.

Of particular concern is a proposal for a 23-member National Strategic Reform and Reconciliation committee, dominated by the military, which allows the security services to intervene in a time of crisis.

“Many provisions are contrary to international democratic principles and the rule of law,” Pheu Thai said.

Undemocratic actions include filling the Parliament with unelected members (according to the draft the House of Senators can have up to 123 appointed members out of a total of 200), as well as the immunity of the military junta from the rule of law.

Many politicians say they expect the charter to pass the vote but to be rejected in the referendum, which would mean the drafting process has to begin again, delaying an election the junta has promised for next year.

In the meantime, Yingluck Shinawatra appeared before the Supreme Court in Bangkok yesterday. She was summoned to review evidence in a case involving rice subsidies that the accusers say haemorrhaged billions of dollars and could see her jailed for up to ten years for negligence.

The grain policy, which has since been discontinued, aimed to boost farmers’ incomes by buying their rice at above market prices. The regime claims the policy was equivalent to corruption, because Yingluck Shinawatra was “buying herself” political support from the farmers.

Yingluck, 48, was greeted with applause and handed red roses by a crowd of supporters as she arrived at the court.

Prosecutors expect the Supreme Court proceedings to last at least six months. Some experts have said the junta risks a backlash if Yingluck’s supporters perceive the verdict as unfair.

The EU showed concern when General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in Thailand with a military coup in May 2014. Brussels and EU member states rightly suspended partnership and trade agreements with Bangkok until democratic norms and constitutional rule resume. During the past bleak year of junta rule, the generals have dispelled any notion of a 'benevolent' coup, announcing that five committees would be established to monitor the international and local media for reports deemed false or a threat to 'national security'. Earlier this year, General Prayuth agreed to lift martial law, only to replace it with Article 44 of a nascent constitution, which grants him unparalleled authority over government and law and order, making him a virtually omnipotent and unchecked ruler.

In addition to entrenching his own power, Prayuth has keenly abused the constitution to blunt any opposition against him. The very document meant to safeguard democracy has become a tool to silence the voice of the people, with the military having proposed a charter which would make the 200-seat Senate entirely unelected.

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