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Terrorist attack in Bangkok turns up heat on Thailand

Sporadic bombings of relatively minor consequence have not been uncommon in Bangkok. In the distant past, business conflicts and turf wars between local crime bosses under both civilian and uniformed guises periodically ended in shootings and grenade attacks. Over the past decade of Thailand's political crisis and accompanying polarization, disaffected elements who lost out over power plays, elections, military coups and street protests gained incentive to destabilize and dictate what constituted the contested status quo.

     What sets apart the ghastly bomb blast during evening rush hour at Bangkok's Ratchaprasong intersection -- a tourist and business haven right next to the famous Erawan Shrine, with its Brahma statue to which myriad Asians of all religions pray for good luck -- is its scale and lethality. The mounting death toll late on Tuesday stood at more than 20, with over 120 injured. This level of carnage would be familiar in the three southernmost border provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, where a Malay-Muslim insurgency against the Thai state has claimed more than 6,500 lives since January 2004, when its upsurge turned virulent. But Bangkok has never seen anything like this. At issue will be whether any party makes a credible claim of perpetration, or the authorities make a credible apprehension of the culprit. Without either, the latest blast may well fit the pattern of previous Bangkok-based explosions that ultimately fade into Thai oblivion due to a lack of forensic means and popular regard for the law.

     When disturbances of this kind take shape in Thailand -- albeit on a far smaller scale -- there are five main kinds of "usual suspects." First, there is the temptation to blame it on the incumbent power holders for creating chaos to prolong their rule. This case would be the Thai military government that seized power in May 2014. While the generals certainly have the materials and operatives, it does not make sense for them to further undermine what is already a weakened economy and wilting political legitimacy. Moreover, bomb blasts make military governments look incompetent and unfit for dictatorship. And the generals can stay in power by fiat or constitutional manipulation without recourse to killing their own citizens.

     Second are the adversaries and opponents of military rule and putsches, underpinned by the so-called red-shirt coalition, led by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship and the Pheu Thai party, under the influence of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Over the past decade, these groups have lost everything -- from their elected political parties and government to the political and financial fortunes of the Shinawatra family, as well as their own lives as they clashed in protests against the military in 2009-2010. However, orchestrating such an attack would be a huge risk for the Shinawatra clan because they want to live in Thailand, while patriarch Thaksin is forced to make do in exile. Rogue red shirts with sufficient wherewithal are also suspect -- but they need access to security forces and bomb equipment to undertake this audacious operation.

     Third is the possibility it could be an inside job by disgruntled forces within the military and the police who have missed out on promotions owing to the junta's concentration of power. The newly appointed national police chief, Police General Chaktip Chaijinda, is a junta loyalist who skipped past several more senior colleagues on his way up the ranks. And Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's brother, Gen. Preecha Chan-ocha, is poised to take over as army chief in a sibling affair that may have upset others in the running. A host of military and police officers who have been passed over for having insufficient confidence in the junta and military government also have potential cause to create disorder.

     Fourth are the Malay-Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand. After all, this scale of havoc and ruthlessness is common in the deep south, where the insurgents have demonstrated their on-the-ground command and control capabilities. They might also have become fed up with continuous neglect by Bangkok. Yet the handiwork at Ratchaprasong, including a TNT bomb type packed with ball bearings to inflict maximum damage, is different from the explosives of choice in southern Thailand. In addition, the insurgents have shown no inclination to operate outside their localities and terrains in the three southernmost provinces. Nor have they displayed any interest in germination with external terrorist networks, such as al-Qaida in the past and the Islamic State group more recently.

     Finally, with violent attacks of this magnitude, international terrorist networks must not be overlooked. Yet none of the major Islamist networks to date has made inroads on Thai soil. Al-Qaida, through its regional outpost Jemaah Islamiyah a decade ago, and Islamic State more recently, have shown no presence so far.

     As conjecture and speculation abound, the leading individual suspect caught on CCTV may offer clues about the real perpetrators behind the scenes. The immediate aftermath is critical. If a new pattern of systematic and claimed bombings takes hold, all bets are off and an already troubled Thailand will enter even darker months ahead. No matter how this post-explosion drama unfolds, the military government is now likely to stay even longer than anticipated due to obvious security concerns. Thailand's resumption of a suspended democratic process must not be further held back by the pretext of bomb blasts.

     To clarify matters, Thai authorities must ensure a credible and transparent process of locating, interrogating and prosecuting suspects to come up with explanations that those at home and abroad can buy. The Thai people have a way of moving on, but this latest blast means it will take longer than usual for society to regain normality. It is imperative that those behind this heinous act are brought to account. Otherwise, it will be another crime and more impunity that slip past the collective glare of a wandering audience, not unlike previous blasts of more minor damage.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, on leave from Chulalongkorn University, is currently the Sir Howard Kippenberger Chair at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

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