Since anti-government demonstrations began in Bangkok on March 14, more than 30 grenade attacks have been launched in the Thai capital. The explosives, almost always M-79 rocket-propelled grenades, were fired at government offices, businesses perceived as supporting the administration or army bases and soldiers. Thai security chiefs have said the attacks, usually carried out in the dead of night, appear to be designed more to warn and frighten than actually hurt anyone except soldiers.
That all changed Thursday night. Four to five M-79 grenades hit the Skytrain commuter-rail-line station in Bangkok's financial district at 8pm, killing one person and wounding 75, including foreign tourists, and sparking a panic in the center of the city. Suthep Thaugsuban, a deputy prime minister in charge of security, said the grenades were fired from an area controlled by antigovernment protesters, called the Red Shirts for the color they wear. Soldiers arrested five suspects who they said had been manning rooftops nearby, but their role in the attacks was unclear. "This just raises the conflict to a new and more dangerous level," said Thongbai Thongpao, a former senator and human rights lawyer. "Thailand had descended into lawlessness."
Leaders of the Red Shirts, whose protesters have occupied the city's main commercial district for more than three weeks demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve parliament and call a new election, denied they had anything to do with the attacks. But when they broke the news of the violence to more than 10,000 supporters at their rally site, the crowd erupted in cheers and began dancing in the street. Some shot homemade rockets at army helicopters circling overhead. None hit their targets.
The government has said the ongoing grenade attacks are the work of a group of rogue soldiers, both active and retired, who support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup and living abroad rather than serving a prison sentence for corruption. Thaksin is believed to fund the Red Shirts' protests, and many Red Shirts are calling for his return. The rogue soldiers are led by Major General Kattiya Sawisdphol, known more commonly by his nickname, Seh Daeng.
Seh Daeng has called his group the ronin, a Japanese word for samurai warriors who have no lord or master, and credits them with grenade attacks and sniper fire that killed six soldiers on April 10 when government forces attempted to disperse the red-shirted protesters. The operation failed; 25 people were killed and more than 800 injured. When Seh Daeng visited the Red Shirts' rally site after that incident, he was greeted as a hero and signed autographs for protesters. He has visited Thaksin several times in Dubai, which the ousted prime minister uses as a base.
When the Red Shirts began their protest in mid-March, they garnered surprising early support in Bangkok, as their movement is often characterized as one composed mainly of the rural poor. But in recent days, the mood in the capital appears to be turning, as rallies by a group of antired-shirted protesters have been growing in size. Known as the Multi-Colors for their lack of a chosen hue, many have hunkered down at an intersection called Saladaeng, a few meters from the Skytrain station, and across the road from the edge of the Red Shirts' rally site. The Red Shirts have barricaded their half of the intersection with bamboo poles, spikes and tires. Both sides have hurled bottles, rocks and other projectiles as soldiers and riot police have stood nearby.
Further complicating matters, a group of protesters known as the Yellow Shirts, who oppose Thaksin and occupied Bangkok's two airports for eight days in late 2008, have given the government an ultimatum to rein in the Red Shirts or they will renew their own protests starting on Sunday. Many fear a clash between the various groups will lead to greater bloodshed and perhaps prompt the military to stage a coup to restore some kind of order something the Abhisit government has failed to do. "Your time is running out," an army spokesman warned the Red Shirts' leaders during a press conference on Thursday before the bombings. Security officials have come under fire from some groups for their inability or unwillingness to disperse the protesters. "The government needs to enforce the law," says Thongbai. "If they don't, then the people will come out to try and solve the problems themselves. And then we will have even more problems."