Don't just keep relying on luck
Faraway tensions from the precarious brinkmanship in the Middle East have reached Thai soil with the apparent terrorist bungle in central Bangkok. The government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra continues to deny international terrorist presence in Thailand, but the weight of evidence increasingly points to the contrary. Thailand is a soft target among third-country theatres of operation. Unless the Thai authorities beef up their security measures and conduct deft diplomacy in the near term, the risk of this easygoing country degenerating from a transit point for illicit crimes to an outright staging ground of international terrorist violence will grow.
It was second-time-lucky for Bangkok when the three Iranian nationals somehow accidentally blew up their own explosives stockpile in a rented house off Bangkok's bustling Sukhumvit Road.
The last major incident on a similar scale in 1994 _ when Hezbollah operatives drove a truckload of explosives towards the Israeli embassy but were foiled by traffic congestion and a scuffle with a local motorcycle taxi driver _ was too laughable.
The truck, with its cargo of explosives and a dead body stuffed inside a large drum, was towed and parked in front of the police station overlooking Lumphini Park for a week before passersby noticed the stench and alerted police. If detonated, the explosives could have damaged a couple of square kilometres of property in central Bangkok.
This time, the rented house practically got blown apart and one of the Iranians accidentally maimed himself with a grenade after launching two _ at a taxi and a local policeman. The two other Iranians fled and were later apprehended.
They had been plotting in Bangkok for some weeks. It is still a puzzle as to how such big terrorist aims, reportedly targeting Israeli assets, could have had such an amateurish and ignominious outcome. Perhaps the bombers were inadequately trained. Perhaps they were disarmed, whittled down by Thai ways, and lost the edge during their stay. The relevant Thai authorities should cooperate with their colleagues elsewhere to answer this question and learn lessons from it. The answer must not be dismissed as luck alone.
To be sure, Thailand is not the only third-country target. Similar blasts aimed at Israeli targets around the same time took place in Georgia's Tbilisi and New Delhi. And more can be expected as tensions in the Middle East come to a boil.
While the contextual timeframe for ongoing conflicts in the Middle East dates back decades and centuries, the current confrontation may be traced to the onset, spread and consequences of the Arab Spring. As entrenched Arab regimes from Tunisia to Egypt and Libya fell, the previous regional power balance no longer holds. Turkey is more confident and assertive, whereas Iran is more insecure and vulnerable. Chronically faced with a volatile and hostile neighbourhood, Israel now may be more insecure with the radicalised developments in post-Mubarak Egypt. In fact, the remaking of the Middle East may be fundamentally unstable and violent for years to come. The fate of Syria's Bashir al-Assad regime now hangs in the balance. If Syria collapses, the threat perceptions of its close ally, Iran, will deteriorate. For the past three decades, Iran and Syria have sponsored an assortment of terrorist and militant movements in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which was the birthplace of Hezbollah after Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to kick out the Palestinian Liberation Organisation for good.
As its back is now against the wall, the Iranians have ratcheted up their anti-Israeli, anti-American rhetoric and stepped up efforts to complete nuclear weapons capabilities. A nuclearised Iran and the prospect of its attendant nuclear blackmail are unlikely to be tolerated by the United States and Israel. The US, together with its allies, has thus put the squeeze on Iran with economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
Such Middle East dilemmas and troubles should not be allowed to create havoc for Thailand. Like the previous Viktor Bout saga, which put Thai allegiance between America and Russia in a bind, the terrorist upsurge for Iranian interests against Israeli targets will likewise test Thai neutrality.
Formerly Persia, Iran has special relations with Thailand going back several centuries, long before both America and Israel became nation-states. Prominent Thai bloodlines emanate from Persian ancestry. But Thai interests in and friendship with Israel also runs deep and wide. They will continue to fight, and the fighting may get worse very soon. The Yingluck government needs to send clear signals both at home and, if necessary, quietly abroad in Teheran to urge the Iranian leadership and its clients not to stage violence on Thai soil. At the same time, it should revamp Thai intelligence-gathering capabilities. We should have had some vibes of these operations in Bangkok without warnings from the US and other embassies. These embassy warnings have been vindicated. The Yingluck government needs to listen to them, work with allies and rely on intelligence-sharing. But in the long term, the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Agency, the National Police Office, the Foreign Ministry and other security-related agencies will need closer coordination, more self-obtained information onsite from Thai embassies and assets in the Middle East, and better analysis and effective and proactive responses and measures at home.
While it plays a role in everything, we cannot completely and unwittingly rely on luck every time. After skirting by two major incidents, Thailand might not be as lucky the third time. It only takes one big terrorist blow-up to change the face and the attraction of easygoing Thailand.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.