Bangkok bombs blamed on politicians ousted in coup

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The Independent Online

Ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters have emerged as the prime suspects in a string of deadly New Year's Eve blasts that rocked the Thai capital and killed at least three people.

The military-backed government fueled that speculation Monday by virtually ruling out Islamic insurgents in the country's restive south as suspects and blaming the attacks on unnamed politicians.

"From the evidence we have gathered, there is a slim chance that it is related to the southern insurgency," Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said, referring to the civil conflict that has left nearly 2,000 dead in the country's three mostly Muslim southernmost provinces.

If that were the case, they are more likely to have done that "in their area of influence" in the south, he said. "It is likely related to people who lost their political benefits."

In a possible sign investigators were zeroing in on Thaksin, the top aide to the former prime minister, Prommin Lertsuridej, was ordered Monday to report to the Council for National Security, the military panel propping up a post-coup interim government.

In September, a group of generals ousted Thaksin in a bloodless takeover, and the military installed Surayud as interim prime minister until elections set for October 2007.

Thaksin, who has been barred from the country since the coup and is now traveling in China, responded through his lawyer that he had nothing to do with the nine bombs that also injured 38 people, including nine foreigners.

Thaksin condemned the attack and called the allegations of his involvement "unfair."

"Thaksin was elected by the people and even during the time of conflict, he has refrained from using violence," Thaksin's lawyer Noppadol Patama told a press conference in Bangkok. "It is very unlikely that a politician who was elected by the people will resort to violence."

Several analysts noted that the military itself was a possible suspect, aiming to demonize the former prime minister and excuse the continuation of martial law, imposed during the September takeover.

"It could be the military trying to justify further crackdowns against Thaksin," said Zachary Abuza, an American expert on Southeast Asian insurgencies.

Most analysts interviewed said Thaksin's supporters appeared to be the most likely suspects, with the goal of destabilizing the new government and possibly providing an opening for Thaksin's return.

"We can see what the bomb blasts have accomplished. It has undermined the government's credibility," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"What this has accomplished for Thaksin is that the people who overthrew him look very poor now," he said of the post-coup regime's failure to ensure safety in the heart of the nation's capital.

"It makes sense. What motivates them is that they want to make this government illegitimate. This is their way of striking back at the forces that overthrew them."

Bangkok has rarely experienced deadly bombings, although several small explosions took place during recent political turmoil in an apparent attempt to create a sense of instability, rather than cause casualties.

Thaksin still has widespread support, and a number of arson attacks in provincial areas since the coup have been blamed on his followers.

Abuza agreed it seemed more likely that Thaksin's supporters would be behind the attack than southern insurgents.

He said the bombs in Bangkok were much smaller, less sophisticated and used different detonation devices than those used in the south. He also said they were planted in locations that would make little sense to an insurgent group wanting to grab headlines around the world.

"They are hitting Thai areas, not the higher profile targets that the Thai insurgents might want to hit if they decided to come to Bangkok," he said.

Still, others said it was premature to rule out the southern insurgents' role in the attack, noting how authorities in Indonesia initially blamed supporters of former dictator Suharto for a series of bombings that followed his ouster in 1998 only to later find Islamic militants responsible.

"We now have bombs going off in Bangkok by somebody who is well organized, somebody who is trying to send a political message," said Bruce Gale, a political risk analyst based in Singapore. "The most obvious question to ask is - has the insurgency moved to Bangkok?"

Since taking power, coup leaders have vowed to end the insurgency in the south. But instead violence has only intensified, with daily shootings bring the death toll to over 1,900 since the insurgency began in 2004.

Suspected insurgents target people seen as collaborators with the government as well as soldiers and police but until now have limited their killings to the three southernmost Muslim-majority provinces - Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.