Thailand: Foreign-trained assassination squads?

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BANGKOK, Thailand — In a year rife with allegations of political terror, Thai authorities have leveled their most alarming to date: A terror cell, trained in Cambodian jungle camps, is out to assassinate Thailand’s prime minister and his inner circle.

Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation, akin to the U.S. FBI, claims to have intercepted a circle of Thai guerillas schooled in firing assault rifles and planting explosives.

Their alleged targets: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, his deputy, other high-profile politicians and a senior police official, according to special investigator Lt. Col. Payao Thongsen.

The government links this plot to radicals among the “Red Shirts,” an anti-establishment faction that ringed central Bangkok with bamboo staves and barbed wire this spring, piled in supporters and vowed to remain until the government held new elections.

Though the group’s leadership is largely in prison or fleeing custody, officials have publicly fretted that the squashed movement may re-emerge as an organized, armed resistance.

This year alone, Bangkok has suffered a mysterious bombing campaign with more than 110 explosives planted, 71 of which successfully detonated, police say. Though no faction takes credit for the attacks, Thailand’s army chief openly points to Red Shirt supporters as the perpetrators.

Still, the terror cell allegations don’t signal the birth of an Irish Republican Army-style resistance, said government spokesman Buranaj Smutharaks. “Quite the contrary. They’re more along the lines of hired mercenaries,” he said. “It’s probably funded by a small group of individuals.”

The Red Shirts’ April-May rallies in Bangkok, initially attracting 150,000 people, were billed as a working-class wake-up call to so-called “elites” unwilling to let the working poor elect a new wave of Thai leaders.

The army eventually crashed their camp with guns blazing, leaving more than 90 dead and nearly 2,000 wounded. The government justified the crackdown as a last resort against a movement tilting towards violent revolution.

Few among the rallies appeared to be armed with much more than slingshots and molotov cocktails. But in one nighttime army raid, masked men emerged to defend the camp with assault rifles, killing a colonel and several soldiers. Protesters then snatched up troops’ guns and destroyed six armed personnel carriers with simple tools and their bare hands.

Troops also reported taking fire when clearing protesters from their entrenched position along Bangkok’s swankiest shopping avenue. The cell’s discovery is a breakthrough, Buranaj said, in searching for this “armed militia” that traded gunfire with soldiers.

However, some circles are countering the allegations with a demand for hard proof, namely the Cambodian government. Cambodian spokesmen have described the claims as a “made-up story” and “rubbish.”

According to Thai investigators, agents discovered the militants’ camp outside Chiang Mai after a guerilla-in-training wilted under the intense training, fled and confessed to police.

Police said they raided the camp and detained 10 men who later claimed to have illegally slipped into the Cambodian province of Siem Reap. There, according to police, they were among at least 39 men training for three weeks to murder important Thai figures.

“We’re not saying the Cambodian government acknowledges or supports such activities,” Buranaj said. “It’s well known that, in many of their border areas, there are military encampments controlled by rogue forces not under the government’s direct control.”

The allegations promise to worsen Thai-Cambodian relations, already brittle after the Red Shirts’ godfather figure, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, briefly served as a financial advisor there.

Ousted in a 2006 military coup, Thaksin is easily Thailand’s most polarizing figure. Charged with fraud and even “terrorism” by the government — they accuse him of funding militant Red Shirts — Thaksin’s faithful regard the coup as an attack on democracy that split the nation into two bitter political extremes.

Cambodia is also believed to harbor Red Shirt strategists fleeing prison terms. Among the fugitives is Jakrapob Penkair, a former government minister who more than a year ago “talked about the intention of turning the political movement into an underground resistance,” said Buranaj, the government spokesman. “That was some of the first evidence we had.”

From hiding, Jakrapob previously told GlobalPost that the movement must progress behind “childish aims” such as mass rallies. Still, “violent means are not what we have in mind,” he said. “Our movement is out for real democratization of Thailand. That takes a lot more than an innocent mass rally to realize.”

Whether Thailand’s underclass-driven opposition is drifting into the light or dark is more difficult to determine than ever, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai researcher at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“It’s very amorphous,” he said. “They’ve become so fragmented. It’s hard to tell who’s leading anything.”

The movement’s core leaders sit behind a Bangkok prison circled by razor wire and a fetid moat. Its affiliated political party, Peua Thai, is increasingly linked to the bombing campaign by the current ruling party. Those skirting arrest are stuck abroad, though one key member claims to occasionally visit Bangkok in a wig-and-glasses disguise.

But few believe the government has cooled the anti-authoritarian sentiment tapped by the Red Shirts movement. Most supporters hail from Thailand’s laboring class, working low-wage jobs in the capital or Thailand’s upcountry agricultural heartland.

As this level of society has matured beyond hand-to-mouth subsistence, it has demanded a louder political voice and a share of Bangkok’s prosperity. The urban punditry, however, cautions that this segment is too easily manipulated by populist politicians and protest captains agitating for class war.

Given such a vast societal divide, the Thai police and government need to submit evidence of the latest assassination claims for public scrutiny, Pavin said.

“It could be true. Who knows?” he said. “But they need to show the people they’ve arrested and make this totally transparent. They can’t say this for the sake of saying it.”