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Thailand's deadly weapon of terror

A Vietnam War-era grenade launcher haunts a new generation.

Thai policeman patrols the Royal Palace in Bangkok to prevent demonstrations. Tensions in Thailand have risen recently as the country has been rocked by several attacks by M79 grenade launchers. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

BANGKOK, Thailand — Few weapons marry convenience and raw power like the M-79 grenade launcher. Known to Vietnam War-era G.I.’s as the “Blooper,” it can lay waste to cement walls or crowds only to discretely vanish into an attacker’s backpack.

Throughout the past two years in Bangkok, this 28-inch menace has done just that. Just as Anthrax letters evoke post-9/11 paranoia in America, the Blooper has come symbolize politically motivated terror in the Thai capital.

M-79 grenades recently fired on army and government buildings have revived the threat of Blooper attacks in Bangkok. Since 2008 the city has seen roughly a dozen M-79 incidents, which have killed one and injured nearly 100.

Each attack has targeted symbols of Thai elitism, power or aristocracy. While the assailants’ message of intimidation is clear, their identity is not. Authorities have yet to convict anyone for these M-79 strikes.

Easy to conceal, and available on the black market, the Blooper is a natural hit-and-run weapon for saboteurs, said Surachart Bamrungsuk, a political scientist with Chulalongkorn and instructor at Thai military academies.

“You need only a little training to use the M-79. But once you’re friendly with it, this is a weapon that’s very easy to use,” Surachart said. “It’s also easy to find.”

America introduced hundreds of thousands of M-79s to Southeast Asia in the 1960s — and many still remain. It has earned the deceptively cute “Blooper” nickname for its odd firing sound: an aspirated “ploomph” as the grenade sails out of the stubby barrel.

For Vietnam-deployed G.I.s, the weapon offered the power of a mortar round in a six-pound, shoulder-slung gun. It later landed Hollywood cameos. Arnold Schwarzenegger toted a Blooper in the "Terminator" films and an M-79 is also featured prominently in a haunting, profanity-laced scene from the war epic "Apocalypse Now."

After Americans pulled out of Vietnam, left-behind M-79s continued to surface in Thailand’s 1970s communist insurgency and Cambodia’s 1980s Khmer Rogue killings. Even today, tourists can shoot old Bloopers at firing ranges near Phnom Penh.

But in modern Bangkok, the M-79 has resurfaced in a specific context: terrorism toward political targets. Its grenades have been fired at pro-establishment protesters, the prime minister’s compound and Army headquarters — but never at the public at large.

Around midnight on Feb. 13 an M-79 grenade exploded in a parking lot near the premier’s head office, damaging cars but leaving no injuries. In January an M-79 grenade soared over the Royal Thai Army headquarters gates late at night, detonating nearby unoccupied rooms on the sixth floor, according to the military.

However, the Blooper has also killed and maimed. An urban protest faction known as the “yellow shirts,” who personify elitism in the eyes of many upcountry Thais, have endured most of the attacks.

The yellow shirts coalesced in 2005 to drive out ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, accused of pervasive corruption and buying rural votes. They succeeded the next year when Thaksin was ousted via military coup, and stuck together to rally against other politicians they’ve labeled as corrupt.