3 years after coup, Thailand sees sporadic, unnerving unrest

AP News
Posted: May 22, 2017 9:10 AM
3 years after coup, Thailand sees sporadic, unnerving unrest

BANGKOK (AP) — Three years after military leaders overthrew a democratically elected government in Thailand, the country is sputtering economically, watched closely for its crackdown on political freedom and still the site of sporadic but unnerving unrest.

On Monday, a bomb exploded in a military-run hospital in Bangkok, wounding 21 people on the third anniversary of the 2014 coup. Police did not directly link the blast to the anniversary, but the timing and the site of the attack were striking.

The army chief, Gen. Chalermchai Sittisart, said Monday's explosion and two recent minor blasts used similar explosive materials and were likely part of an attempt to disrupt the government.

"All of this was conducted with the goal of creating disorder to the administrative work of the government and NCPO," he said, referring to the National Council for Peace and Order, the official name of the ruling junta.

But he cautioned that "we shouldn't conclude anything yet" about who was behind the attack.

Sansern Kaewkumnerd, a government spokesman, confirmed that a bomb exploded on the ground floor of Phramongkutklao Hospital. Investigators found remnants of batteries, wires and nails at the scene, authorities said.

Three years ago, Thailand's army commander appeared on TV screens across the country, vowing to restore order after months of political deadlock, protests and sometimes-deadly violence. Without firing a shot or spilling any blood, the military staged its second coup in eight years — and its 12th successful putsch since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

Just months after the 2014 coup, junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha became prime minister, trading in his army uniform for civilian garb.

Now, the country remains solidly under military control.

Critics say the junta has failed to fulfill pledges to respect human rights and restore democratic rule.

"Three years after the coup, the junta still prosecutes peaceful critics of the government, bans political activity, censors the media and stifles free speech," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The military government has boosted prosecutions under the draconian lese majeste law, under which insulting the monarchy can land someone up to 15 years in jail. The military government has made punishing perceived royal insults a priority.

Earlier this month, Thailand backed off a threat to block Facebook, instead providing the social media site with court orders to remove content that the government deemed illegal.

A spate of bombings has unnerved Thailand in the years since the coup. Since 2014, at least six explosions have struck the capital. Most caused only minor damage, except for a blast on Aug. 17, 2015, that killed about 20 people near a popular Hindu shrine.

The army chief said two explosions in recent weeks were likely linked to Monday's blast. The earlier bombs in front of the National Theater and an old government lottery office wounded four people.

The country has also struggled for years with continuing violence in the south.

Muslim separatists have waged a bloody insurgency in Thailand's three southernmost provinces, the only ones with Muslim majorities in the predominantly Buddhist country. More than 6,500 people have been killed since 2004.

Earlier this month, suspected insurgents detonated a car bomb outside a busy shopping center in the south, wounding more than 50 people.

The economy is also a sore point.

"Thailand is a country of vast potential but recent growth has been slowing," the World Bank said in a March report.

Adams, of Human Rights Watch, said there should be global calls for reform.

"Pressure from Thailand's friends is urgently needed to end repression and restore respect for basic rights that are essential for the country's return to democratic civilian rule," he said.