This time Thailand’s authorities must bring justice and closure for victims’ families, writes Matthew Phillips
THE bomb that hit the Erawan shrine on Monday evening was a tragedy. CCTV images of the moments before the bomb reveal the lively activity of people paying their respect to the statue of Brahma. Making offerings of flowers and incense, most will have been praying for prosperity and luck. With only days having passed since the bomb ripped through this small corner of Bangkok, the primary concern should remain the unfolding tragedy both for the injured and for the friends and family of those killed.
For those Thais not caught up in the events themselves, the significance is still sinking in. To be sure, this was a shocking act. An attack against a religious site, and on tourists specifically, it has left many in Thailand struggling to comprehend. For others, however, news of the event will rapidly fade into the background of everyday life. Over the past 10 years, Bangkok has been plagued by social conflict, and during the past century, sporadic acts of horrendous violence have erupted infrequently but consistently. In that time, Thais have become used to ‘getting back to normal’, after what are utterly abnormal events. Invariably, this has left families to grieve alone, waiting for justice that fails to arrive, and for social recognition that is rarely forthcoming.
The Erawan shrine has reopened, and there are once again calls to return to ‘normality’. The blood-stained streets have been thoroughly cleaned, and the high end shops that surround the shrine remain open for business. On Tuesday afternoon, as the clean-up operation was well underway, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha led calls for such a response to the bomb. “I’d like to ask all Thai people of all sectors, including all authorities, to join hands together in order to move forward,” he said. To do so, he explained, Thais should “publicize beautiful things and create understanding with foreigners, so that our beloved country and institutions will be stable.”
To casual observers, the message might seem vague, even slightly naive. To Thais, however, the message is pointed and clear, connected to a public relations response to violence that rests at the heart of Thai citizenship. It is a view that makes individual Thais personally responsible for the country’s international reputation, and asserts that in the face of such violence, it is now all Thais who must work to restore the image of the nation in the eyes of the international community.
It is an approach to public relations that goes back to the Cold War, when Thailand was firmly under the control of a military junta supported by Washington. Throughout the period, sporadic outbursts of violence were commonplace, and the government would regularly create legal precedents for the use of violence to maintain control. Under the guise of protecting the country from communism, presented as an external threat, this violence was nevertheless regularly inflicted upon domestic opponents. Perhaps the darkest such episode came in 1976, when large numbers of Thais opposed to military rule were massacred for protesting the curtailing of democratic government.
At the same time, institutions were set up to present Thailand as ‘peaceful’. In particular, the Tourist Authority of Thailand was established up to promote the country as a place where international tourists could experience an Asian country, without the fear of communist insurrection, or anti-colonial violence present elsewhere on the continent. As one Tourist Authority press release announced in 1962, Bangkok ‘is at Peace’ and ‘Peace is the essence of Thailand’. Not only would a trip to Thailand remain untouched by violent events elsewhere in the Far East, there would be little sign of military activity, and of course plenty of ‘traditional Thai hospitality and courtesy.’
Over the course of the following decades, this message helped to build one of the most successful markets for tourism in the world. But it also had a profound effect on Thai notions of citizenship, meaning that the individual actions of a single individual could be held responsible for damaging the image of the entire nation. It was a type of propaganda borrowed almost entirely from similar endeavours in the United States. Projects such as the Peace Corps, or the People-to-People program encouraged all Americans abroad to see themselves as ‘ambassadors’ of the nation and cast Americans in the world as active, benevolent and open-minded. For Thais, however, the individual responsibility was to promote the view that Thailand was peaceful, stable and happy. With that came the benefits of alignment with the Free World, economic growth, and a better society of all. From within this ideological world view, Thais who threatened to challenge the status quo thus threatened the very basis of the modern nation.
During the Cold War, the mapping of public relations to Thailand’s outward face remained coherent and clear, both inside and outside the country. For the United States, internal violence was excusable, as long as it didn’t affect Thailand’s overall strategic position. If that internal violence could be cast by Thailand’s governing structures as communist inspired, even better. But, as the Cold War came to an end, and as Thailand developed into a modern capitalist economy, the rationale for military rule slowly came to an end. Increasingly, the United States lost interest in Southeast Asia as it became embroiled in military confrontations in the Middle East and it was left largely to global media organisations and international NGOs to track Thailand’s political and social development. In many ways, this facilitated the development of democratic institutions in the country, albeit tied to a neo-liberal agenda.
However, since 2006, internal political conflict has once again come to dominate in Thailand, and violence has returned as a common feature of Thai life. In 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2014, protests on the streets of Bangkok led to violent clashes as the rival ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ shirts fought for their respective political vision for the country. In 2010 in particular, horrific scenes unfolded on the streets of Bangkok, in the very same area as Monday’s bomb, when almost 100 people lost their lives after the government set up ‘live-fire’ zones to remove red shirt protesters from the streets.
What has remained during the past decade is a commitment by all sides of the political divide to maintain Thailand’s image to the outside world, and to protect the tourist industry. Regularly, during the years of protest, Thais have come into contact with foreign visitors, most notably in 2008 during the yellow shirt occupation of Suvarnabhumi international airport. Yet, at no time, have tourists been targeted violently to make a political point. To do so would be unimaginable. Not only would it be viewed as a rejection in the eyes of the nation of the individual’s Thai identity, it would also irrevocably damage any political objective. Instead, violence has been contained, often brutally so, to designated zones where only Thais are harmed.
Moreover, when such violent episodes come to an end, the response has always been to quickly ‘clean up’ and return to normal. In 2010, for example, after the ‘live-fire’ zones were dismantled, and once surviving red shirt protesters had fled the city, residents were encouraged to occupy the streets once again and remove any sign of the bloody episode. For those who had lost loved ones, all they could do was return home and wait, for a justice which is yet to come and a society which is yet to acknowledge their grief.
The military government, which came to power in May 2014, did so under the cover of another episode in Thailand’s messy political crisis. According to its own public messaging following the coup, it did so to “return happiness to the people”, so that Thais could “smile again”. Adhering to only a trace of the Cold War ideology upon which the message was derived, the argument nevertheless sought to establish the restoration of Thailand’s outside face as a basis for military rule. Being happy was not an aspiration, it was an order. Protest was now unacceptable. Media organisations were forced to support the military government. Academic debate was all but shut down. Many Thais were forced to flee the country. Many others were given long prison sentences for simple acts of social critique. But, to the outside world, calm could now be guaranteed after over half a year of disruption.
Since the coup, with the Thai public unable to speak openly about what is happening inside the country, the population has become increasingly apathetic. Ideas of democracy and social justice have begun to fade from political ambitions, and Thais have had to become used to a political establishment that seems intent on closing ranks and protecting its own right to rule above everything else. Many remain deeply concerned about the route the country is taking, but feel impotent to do anything other than wait and hope.
However, the bomb that ripped through the Erawan shrine on Monday has raised questions of the new regime which have yet to be resolved. Importantly, the explosion was not simply a national incident, but an international one. The rapid clean-up of the shrine might return the country to an abnormal normality, but this time the decision to do so will have to be explained to the victims. Justice will not only be expected, but eventually demanded, and in achieving that, scrutiny will be applied. Questions will have to be answered about intelligence failings, and as the investigation progresses, evidence will have to be produced. If the atrocity is found to be the work of foreign nationals, extradition orders may well have to be put in. Relatives from across the world will have to be kept informed, and reassured. Maintaining a strong public face to the world will be extremely important.
To date, this strong public face has not been forthcoming. A lack of clarity in the government’s public messages has created confusion, not only nationally, but across the world. On Tuesday, much of the world’s media was reporting that the culprit was likely connected to the government’s internal opposition. The assertion came after Prime Minister Prayuth claimed the government had summoned an individual who had posted messages on Facebook, allegedly predicting the bombs. He went on to state that the individual was a member of an anti-government group in the northeast.
Later, the Prime Minister claimed he had been misquoted.
Nevertheless, the discovery of CCTV footage of the alleged bomber, so soon after the event, has ensured that expectations will remain high that suspects will quickly be brought to Justice. If faith in the Thai government to manage the investigation is to remain, statements from the junta will have to be clear, concise, and well-grounded. Primarily, for the sake of the victims and their families, the death of civilians on the streets of Bangkok must not be politicised. Instead it must be investigated thoroughly and transparently, because this time the Thai people cannot be held responsible for protecting Thailand’s international reputation. That job is for the authorities alone.
About the author:
Matthew Phillips is a lecturer in Modern Asian History at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom. His forthcoming book, Thailand in the Cold War, deals with themes of culture and identity, and focuses largely on Bangkok’s urban communities during the period.