Bomb shatters Bangkok's calm

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.

“Our movement is out for real democratization of Thailand,” he wrote in an e-mail from an undisclosed location. “That takes a lot more than an innocent mass rally to realize. However, violent means are not what we have in mind. True political education is.”

But Thai society, according to Buranaj, is “fed up with politics being the root cause of divisiveness.” His party member’s victory against the jailed opposition candidate, he said, suggests that more and more Thais support the government.

“We all want to move past these times of conflict and turmoil,” he said.

In Thailand’s climate of mistrust, the bombing will likely set off a crossfire of finger-pointing. The ruling party quickly explained that the attack helped justify its emergency decree; detractors have previously insinuated that mysterious bombings help the government retain extraordinary powers.

The emergency decree allows freezing bank accounts, banning political gatherings and censorship. Most recently, a reconciliation-themed public service announcement that even the prime minister considered acceptable was banned, in part, for displaying a torn Thai flag backed by weepy piano riffs.

Whether or not the government lifts its emergency decree soon, as it recently promised, the bus stop bombing may tinge future elections with fear.

This race was simply a by-election to replace a dead senator. A larger specter of violence could darken the pending election for prime minister, which still has no set date. Fresh elections, the prime minister has repeatedly announced, can only take place once tranquility is restored to Thailand.

More stories by Patrick Winn on Thai political unrest:

Thailand: From Fat Cats to Red Shirts

5 things you need to know about Bangkok's crisis

Thailand protests: A battle with no clear victors

Bangkok: First the protest. Now the hangover.

Is Thailand headed for civil war?