Monday, April 02, 2012

Thailand sees new wave of terror attacks

Thailand is once again seeing a new wave of terror attacks which threaten to bring instability to the country and scare tourists away.

On Saturday blasts struck several targets in parts of southern Thailand killing at least 13 people and injuring more than 300 others. Bombs exploded near shops and at a hotel in the centre of Hat Yai, just a few hour's drive from some of Thailand's well-known beach resorts in the Yala province. The explosions sent shoppers and tourists fleeing and brought carnage to the streets of two cities in the worst series of attacks to be seen in the country since 2006.

Multiple blasts

The bombs were hidden in pickup trucks in two cities 140 km apart, exploding within an hour of each other. Two went off in Yala, one of three Muslim-majority southern provinces at the heart of an insurgency that has claimed 5,000 lives since 2004. Those explosions killed 10 people in a busy shopping street. A third bomb went off in the basement car park of the five-star Lee Gardens Plaza Hotel and shopping centre in Hat Yai.

Initially authorities blamed the blast at the hotel on a gas leak, according to one local ex-pat who spoke to tvnewswatch, but later they admitted the explosion was caused by a bomb.

"A bomb in Hat Yai today at Lee Gardens Hotel and 200 people are trapped," the British expat Robin Chakrabarti said. "Five other bombs went off in the southern provinces."

Having been caught in a similar series of attacks a few years back [tvnewswatch: Thailand terror exclusive eyewitness account], he expressed his reticence in leaving his flat. "I Won't be going out in the town centre tonight," he said. A few hours later he said that he had been told the blasts "turned out to be caused by a gas leak, but three people got killed."

"I am about half a mile away, but I don't intend to go too close. There are lots of people in hospital already," he said.


After the weekend, the country was still reeling from the blasts and authorities were still sifting through the wreckage. "I went to the place where the explosion was later on Saturday evening around 6pm and there were still four fire engines, about 20 ambulances and police cars and approximately one hundred soldiers in camouflage, but without firearms, hanging around just across the street outside the central shopping centre," the expat told tvnewswatch. "The fire had been extinguished by then, but the glass front of McDonald's had been blasted into the street."

"Local people were saying it was a gas leak or a fire caused by an exploding air conditioner, but later I heard that it was a bomb in the underground car park."

"Thai news channels showed victims of smoke inhalation being taken to hospital by a fleet of small private ambulances. The hotel bookings during the weekend suffered an 80% cancellation rate as bus loads of Malaysians and Singaporeans, who come for cheap 'sex and booze' weekends changed their plans."

Empty streets

"There was also an absence of the local Muslim stalls which usually serve noodle soup at night, and many businesses had closed down for the weekend, many fearing further trouble. In spite of this there has been no further problems except for police and private security guards searching bags and stopping and checking motorcyclists at road blocks."

"I went to the Swan, a nearby restaurant and bar usually frequented by expats and locals alike, but apart from me there was only one other customer, and so I left shortly afterwards."

He spoke of the fear of many locals were feeling and the unusually empty streets. "Today (Monday 2nd April), the city, which is normally a hive of activity is strangely quiet and empty. The small stalls which usually line every pavement cluttered with food, fruit and other produce are no longer there. The school where I work has also suffered from student cancellations as parents are afraid to go to the downtown areas."

PM faces backlash

The bombings add to a growing list of problems for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, seen as a political novice who since taking office last August has faced problems on multiple fronts, from a flood crisis and entrenched political divisions to rising food prices and a struggling economy.

Yingluck pledged before her election to consider turning the three southern provinces into a special administrative zone with one elected governor, a sensitive subject in Buddhist Thailand where the government has long resisted the idea of handing more political power to its minority Muslims. However, Saturday's attacks in a city popular with Malaysian tourists may force her to reconsider.

Anthony Davis, an analyst at IHS-Jane's, a global security consulting firm, told Reuters the bombings were of a different scale than those seen before. "What's unprecedented was the scale of the operation ... and the ruthlessness in targeting large numbers of civilians," he said. "Violence in the three southernmost provinces has become routine," Davis said, "but an attack at the heart of Hat Yai's tourist district on a Saturday afternoon was obviously intended to seize national and international attention and make a very brutal point: this is not 'business as usual'."

In their efforts to apprehend the bombers authorities have issued CCTV pictures of suspects they believe to be responsible [Bangkok Post]. But it will take more than a few arrests to reduce the unease now felt by tourists, expats and local residents living in Thailand's south.

tvnewswatch, London, UK - with additional exclusive reporting from Hat Yai, Thailand

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