TOPICS > Politics

Election Day Bombing Mars Thailand Vote

BY Patrick Winn and GlobalPost Correspondent  July 26, 2010 at 11:00 AM EDT

Thai bomb squad; Photo by AFP/Getty

BANGKOK | An election day bombing has delivered another setback to Thailand’s efforts to regain its political and economic footing after political riots in May.

Explosives, hidden in a trash bag, killed one man and wounded nine others Sunday.

The bombing was the first mass violence since the Thai military crushed a movement by anti-government demonstrations to force new elections. The bomb exploded in the same glitzy commercial strip that protesters, known as “Red Shirts,” seized while staging an uprising that ultimately left 90 dead.

The Sunday bombing comes as the Thai prime minister pursues “national reconciliation,” but while many of the leaders of the anti-government movement and who wish to oust him are underground or behind bars.

Their movement, which rallied roughly 150,000 at its peak, also has been hobbled by frozen bank accounts, censorship and emergency decrees forbidding political gatherings.

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One of the opposition leaders behind bars is Korkaew Pikulthong, but his name was on the ballot on Sunday for a vacant parliamentary seat in Bangkok. Even though charged with terrorism for commanding raucous protests and unable to campaign, Korkaew won 41 percent of the vote.

The winner was a ruling party candidate, Panich Vikitsreth, who was far less known. These results show that “people want to move past the time of conflict and turmoil,” said Buranaj Smutharaks, a government spokesman. “I think the Thai people will reject any movement that uses violence or terrorism. They’re supporting the government.”

The government has carefully refrained from lumping all Red Shirts in with “terrorism,” a label they’ve used to describe elements who stoked recent riots with guns, slingshots and petrol bombs. Most protesters may be well-intentioned, spokesmen have said, but they’ve been misled by violent extremists.

“There are still a small number of hardliners who want to continue inciting fear through violence,” Buranaj said. “That’s why the government can’t lift the emergency decrees nationwide.”

In the meantime, the scattered Red Shirts mock their violent image. A T-shirt traded among protesters depicts cartoons of working-class Thais holding sticks, slingshots and handfuls of feces ready for the flinging. The shirt sarcastically proclaims in Thai, “Armed Terrorist Gang!”

Still, no one has taken responsibility for an arson campaign that torched symbols of power — a deluxe mall, the national stock exchange — in the last hours of their routed protest. Many opposition sympathizers are seething that middle-class Thais have eulogized gutted shopping meccas instead of protesters shot by troops.

“It’s horrible,” said Nuan Supavanich, 46, who gathered in a Bangkok park to support the imprisoned opposition candidate. “Too many people feel sorry for a department store instead of human beings.”

Following the Red Shirt parliamentary candidate’s loss, it is unclear how the faltering movement will proceed.

Their anti-establishment message remains hugely popular in Thailand’s urban working-class enclaves and its populous northeast rice-farming country. If mobilized, their electoral power would be strong. But most of the movement’s leadership is imprisoned or fleeing. Many who once belonged to its allied political party are banned from politics under corruption charges.

Those who have escaped arrest operate underground. A funder and godfather of the movement, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has acquired several foreign passports and influences supporters from bases around the globe.

These self-exiled elements, according to the government, are among the opposition’s most dangerous. One escaped leader, Jakrapob Penkair, concedes that the “aim of such a movement is the restructuring of Thailand’s outdated political formation.”

His splinter group, Red Siam, “realizes that an innocent mass rally and a house dissolution or other childish aims simply will not turn things around for the people,” Jakrapob wrote in an e-mail from a secret location. “However, violent means are not what we have in mind.”

But the government is not convinced. While trying to sway opposition sympathizers, it is promising security to the urban Thais pleased that protesters were routed from their crude encampments in the upscale city center. (The government even paid for many demonstrators’ one-way train tickets to the provinces.)

Ruling party leaders even have hinted that fresh national elections — the opposition’s chief demand — could come as soon as 2011 if stability and order are restored to Thailand.

But that was before Sunday’s mysterious bombing against random civilians. Violence clearly remains deeply entangled in politics. And reconciliation in Thailand, for the moment, seems even less probable.

Patrick Winn reports for GlobalPost in Thailand.