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Deadly Bombs Make Bangkok Unsafe

Deadly Bombs Make Bangkok Unsafe

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Increasingly deadly bomb attacks across Bangkok have plunged this Buddhist-majority country into confusion, despair and fear because its military and police, who received years of counter-terrorism training by the U.S., are unable to keep the capital safe.

The Thai government exposed its weakness when the prime minister and other officials -- issuing what sounded like a macabre weather report -- bleakly warned more bomb attacks would occur in October but may taper off in November.

Security officials suspect frustrated pro-democracy Red Shirt revolutionaries may now be unleashing bloody revenge assaults in Bangkok, after the military crushed the Reds' nine-week insurrection last Spring, leaving 91 people dead -- mostly civilians -- and more than 1,500 injured.

"If the conflict is not resolved, it is likely that more bombs will be used in attacks, especially IEDs (improvised explosive devices) because they are easily assembled," warned Explosive Ordnance Disposal Police Lt. Col. Khamthorn Auicharoen.

Bangkok's bombers may also be sourcing their explosives from southern Thailand, where the military has been unable to crush minority Muslim ethnic Malay-Thai insurgents, in a murky war that has killed more than 4,000 people on all sides since 2004.

Some skeptics, however, suspect rifts within the highly politicized military are enabling some attacks.

"Do not seek to destroy the army, even if you have failed to secure a promotion," Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha told Thailand's splintered, poorly disciplined military earlier in October.

Adding to the worry is the unsolved theft of 32 rocket-propelled grenades, 8,000 bullets for U.S.-supplied M-16 assault rifles, and other weaponry from an army arsenal during September.

A similar mysterious theft of 69 hand grenades, and 3,100 bullets for assault rifles, occurred at a different army depot in March.

While Bangkok's security degenerates, residents have become increasingly jittery, jaded and suspicious while demanding an immediate solution after each new bomb blast.

A "How to Identify a Bomb" advisory was published in the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper on October 10 describing an array of the grenades, Molotov cocktails, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) built with dynamite, empty fire extinguishers, cooking gas cylinders, fertilizer, diesel fuel, nails, fireworks, and detonators linked to cell phones, which have been used in recent weeks to wreak havoc in the Thai capital.

Bombings have included 40-mm, M-67, M-26, MK-2, RGD-5 and rocket-propelled grenades, police said.

The worst blast to hit the Bangkok area in many years ripped apart two floors of an apartment building on Oct. 5 in Nonthaburi province, 40 kilometres north of Bangkok, killing four people, including the alleged bomb maker.

Investigators said electrician Samai Wongsuwan -- a known Red Shirt activist from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand -- was the dead bomb maker who accidentally detonated a device made of 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of TNT.

They identified him from a driver's license and DNA match to a severed arm discovered amid the wreckage of his recently rented inexpensive room.

Nine others were injured in the powerful explosion, and city officials ordered the five-story building to be dismantled because its structure could collapse.

Police are currently hunting two suspects.

Amporn Jaikorn, 49, allegedly appeared in the building's closed-circuit security video when she and a man, Kasi Ditthanarat, 48, visited the building, apparently to meet Mr. Samai, police said.

Mrs. Jaikorn was described as a Red Shirt supporter from Chiang Mai, while Mr. Kasi comes from Narathiwat province in Thailand's violent, Muslim-majority south.

Their Toyota pickup truck's license plate also appeared to be from Narathiwat province, police said.

It was unclear, however, if that proved a first ever public link between the mostly Buddhist, nationalistic Reds who are based in Thailand's north and northeast, and minority southern separatists who frequently build bombs in their fight for an Islamist homeland.

Red Shirts and their supporters portray Bangkok's bombings as a shameless conspiracy by the government to entrench the military, justify the government's ongoing state of emergency decree, and smear innocent Reds.

"The government is addicted to the power of the emergency decree," said opposition Puea Thai Party spokesman Prompong Nopparit.

The emergency decree gives officials sweeping powers to seize and imprison people, curtail free expression and political assemblies, and grants immunity from prosecution for officials under its scope.

The Puea Thai Party and the Reds, who wear symbolic crimson clothing, want to reverse a 2006 military coup, and have a nationwide election to restore toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is an international fugitive based mostly in Dubai, dodging a two-year jail sentence for corruption.

The Red Shirts are officially known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), but a hard-line wing named Red Siam earlier broke away, reportedly to pursue "a true revolution."

It is unclear, however, who staged most of the bomb attacks or if they are by diverse individuals.

During September, successful and failed bombings in Bangkok have targeted a school, a shopping mall's car park, the Public Health Ministry's parking lot, the Royal Turf Club, a ruling politician's office, and public sidewalks.

At least 71 bombs reportedly exploded this year in Bangkok, causing damage, injuries, and a handful of deaths -- some apparently random -- which averages two bombings a week in a city now gripped by political polarization after the Red Shirts' failed insurrection.

Another 43 explosive devices were defused this year, police said.

The scattered timing and locations of the blasts have people baffled but worried.

"It's not right in my face, but I'm of course scared," said one executive.

"I think if people see something funny, or weird, they should tell an officer," she said.

Unable to stop the assaults, desperate officials expressed strained hopes.

"I would like to thank the people for staying alert and cooperating with police following the recent bombings," soft-spoken Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in his weekly broadcast on October 10.

"If everyone works together, the situation will be restored soon."

In September, the prime minister was similarly unable to protect his citizens and said: "Many people, including myself, have assessed the situation and decided we will have to be more cautious over the next two weeks."

Others are nervous about the possibility of yet another military coup in a country which suffered more than 18 successful and attempted putsches since the 1930s.

"I will try to step back from politics, be clear of it, and leave it with the government so that soldiers can do their military work," declared Army Chief Prayuth who is widely seen as a staunchly anti-Red, anti-Thaksin hawk.

"But if the nation has not returned to order, the military -- as a mechanism of the government -- must help build order first," said Gen. Prayuth who was promoted to the military's top slot on Oct. 1 after helping to stage the 2006 coup.

America has spent millions of U.S. taxpayers' dollars training and arming Thailand's military since the 1960s, and currently also trains its police through the State Department's Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program in the U.S. and in Bangkok.

The U.S. Defense Department's Force Protection Detachment at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok has also trained and equipped police with hand-held metal detectors, lights, mirrors to check under cars for concealed bombs, and other items.

The Thai military's bomb hunting abilities, and priorities, were exposed when it spent more than $24 million on hundreds of empty plastic boxes -- each with a toy antenna sticking out -- and used them from 2007 to 2010 as bomb detectors in the south and elsewhere, despite officials denouncing the British devices as a corruption hoax.

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is
http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com

(Copyright 2010 Richard S Ehrlich)

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