Widespread violence in Thai campaign

Issue 

By Chris Beale

There has been considerable violence in the period of campaigning for the Thai elections on September 13. One horrific incident was a bomb explosion at Hat Yai railway station on August 13, killing three people and injuring at least 75.

Earlier, there had been six fatal shootings and bombings — of politicians and others — in different parts of the country. Some of these executions were carried out in broad daylight.

Hat Yai is southern Thailand's main rail, road and telecommunications terminus. It links various prosperous provinces with Malaysia's booming economy, and is a busy thoroughfare, including for much of the tourist trade of both countries.

Hat Yai is also part of the area where Buddhism, from the north, and Islam, from the south, meet and mingle. A Muslim separatist group — the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) — is said to have claimed responsibility for the blast.

However, "PULO has not committed such violence for about 10 years" the Bangkok Post quoted the head of Thailand's National Security Council as saying. Moreover, observers have noted that PULO's targets have traditionally been property rather than people.

Islamic leaders also expressed doubts that PULO placed the Hat Yai bomb because PULO is said to be negotiating a truce with the Thai Fourth Army, which is based in the region.

The bombing happened during the few days that opposition leader Chamlong Srimuang was campaigning in town. Chamlong's hunger strike last May galvanised the protest against General Suchinda's unelected prime-ministership.

Chamlong's Palang Dhamma Party (PDP) won 32 out of 35 Bangkok seats during elections last March. A PDP canvasser in the town of Samut Prakan, close to Bangkok, was murdered recently.

Palang Dhamma headquarters in Bangkok recently received a bomb threat regarding one of their planned mass-rallies in the capital. That this happened in the heartland of Palang Dhamma support must be doubly worrying for party activists in more remote areas, where PDP candidates have already been threatened.

Chamlong vows he will go on campaigning in provincial areas without seeking police protection. This was also his practice during the March elections.

Election-related threats and violence are not being solely targeted at Palang Dhamma, nor even limited to political activists. A popular time academic, Dr Chirmsak, had his house attacked by Molotov cocktails.

Chirmsak made the mistake of screening a videotape of the May massacre. He also gave air time to enraged members of the public, as they questioned politicians and officials about the May events.

The caretaker administration of Prime Minister Anand has set up a new committee to investigate the "missing" from May. Unlike its predecessor, this new committee has no members with links to the military. It also has powers to cross-examine leaders of the armed forces, some of whom were demoted for their part in the May crackdown.

Anand has been surprisingly tough with those sections of the military most directly responsible for the bloodshed, and has made enemies. "I just want to make sure it was not a bomb", he joked recently, when picking up a tape recorder dropped by a journalist.

The man being tipped by many as Thailand's next leader — former Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan — was himself a victim of the military. Overthrown by Suchinda in a bloodless coup, on the pretext of widely believed massive corruption, Chatichai is now saying he has an idea where the "missing" were dumped: from planes, into thick jungle along the Thai-Burmese border.

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