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Bomb shatters Bangkok's calm

The bombing, amid protests and an election, risks a crossfire of finger-pointing.

Thai protesters
Flouting a state of emergency law forbidding political gatherings, anti-government activists feign death in a Bangkok park in remembrance of protesters killed in May clashes with the military. (Patrick Winn/GlobalPost)

BANGKOK, Thailand — A mysterious bombing has returned unease to Bangkok, still on the mend from wild riots and urban army raids.

One man is reported dead and eight wounded after explosives stashed in a trash bag erupted near a bus stop, charring the sidewalk and slicking the pavement with blood. Typical of Bangkok’s bombings, no one has taken responsibility for the attack. But its timing is unmistakably political.

The device exploded as poll workers added up senate race election results between a ruling party candidate and an opposition protester allowed to run for office from prison. He has been detained since army battalions expelled his anti-establishment “Red Shirts” faction from their crude camp in central Bangkok. In total, the turmoil left 90 dead and nearly 1,500 wounded.

Since then, the movement has been largely dismantled. The opposition candidate is stuck with most of the Red Shirts leadership in a prison circled by razor wire and a grungy canal. He narrowly lost the Sunday election.

Even the movement’s faithful, who were audacious enough to challenge M-16-toting soldiers with slingshots in May, have only recently dared to flout Thailand’s ongoing state of emergency.

Political gatherings larger than five people remain prohibited. But on the day of the election, between 500 and 1,000 flocked to Bangkok’s largest park under the tongue-in-cheek guise of a “group aerobics” session. Many smeared their faces in white make-up to personify spirits of their kin who died in crackdowns. They flopped on the grass screaming, “People died here!”

“It’s so frustrating. This emergency decree has pushed us down,” said Prasit Surawet, 44, a vendor and longtime opposition supporter. “Most of the leaders have turned themselves in and the ones that escaped are being hunted down. We can’t express ourselves openly.”

But while workaday supporters like Prasit insist they’re harmless, the government has evoked the threat of an IRA-style uprising manipulating the movement from the shadows. The prolonged protests, leaders said, were routed to suppress armed terrorists who had infiltrated the movement.

“There are still a small number of hardliners who want to continue inciting fear through violence,” said Buranaj Smutharaks, member of Thailand’s ruling Democrats party, less than an hour before the election day bombing.

“Clearly, these few people want to use the Red Shirt movement as a front,” he said. “That’s why the government can’t lift the emergency decree nationwide.”

Among those the government considers hardline is Jakrapob Penkair, currently on the lam after facing charges stemming from Red Shirt protests last year.