Abe king-hit; Rajapaksa’s decline; Loving Yew By Hamish McDonald.

Thai bomb possibly aimed at military PM

The scene of Monday’s bombing outside the Erawan shrine in central Bangkok.
The scene of Monday’s bombing outside the Erawan shrine in central Bangkok.
Credit: AFP

This week’s bombing at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok has again darkened the sunny picture of our region – aside from the odd natural disaster or touch of Chinese territorial assertiveness – that our leaders often paint.

The range of suspects is wide: disaffected “Red Shirt” supporters of exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Muslim rebels from Thailand’s Malay-populated south, a faked threat set up by Thai military elements, Uygurs getting back at Thailand for returning refugees to China. With the Thai police describing their main suspect from CCTV footage as a “foreign man”, the possibilities widen.

Most analysis came down on the Red Shirt theory. A bombing in the heart of Bangkok’s tourist precinct, designed to cause maximum carnage, looks aimed both at economic damage by deterring foreign visitors and at embarrassing the military junta that took power in May last year with the declared aim of restoring stability and security. It is also a hit at the Bangkok elites and middle class, who sided against Shinawatra’s rural-based populism. It could fit in with a car-bomb explosion at the Koh Samui resort in April, which fortunately caused no casualties.

Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who made himself prime minister after mounting the coup, did not immediately declare a state of emergency, but he already has extraordinary powers and democracy is temporarily suspended, at least until 2017 or when elections can be devised that Shinawatra’s proxies do not win.

The general is also managing the imminent royal succession, with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, ailing in hospital again. Last weekend Prayuth joined the “Bike for Mom” bicycle ride through Bangkok, led by Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn to honour his mother Queen Sirikit, who at 83 is also in poor health.

The military-backed event seemed designed to show the army was firmly behind Vajiralongkorn as the legitimate heir to the throne, and that the 63-year-old prince had left his tearaway playboy years behind. Discussion of alternative succession possibilities, centring on the more popular Princess Sirindhorn, is discouraged by ever more harsh application of the lèse majesté law under army rule. One who recently raised the subject, Pongsak Sriboonpeng, got a 30-year jail sentence.

1 . Abe king-hit

Monarchy does have its uses. As we foreshadowed last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe used his speech on the 70th anniversary of his country’s surrender in the Pacific War to suggest that the Japanese have done enough apologising and it’s time to move on.

After all, he said – in a sweep that echoed John Howard’s assertion that Australians don’t have to be guilty about what previous generations did to Aboriginals or non-white would-be settlers – some 80 per cent of Japanese were born after 1945. While Abe said the expressions of “deep remorse” about suffering made by previous prime ministers still stood, he didn’t express his own remorse or apology. He put Japan’s expansionism in the context of earlier European imperialism, buried the subject of imperial army “comfort women” in a reference to the wartime suffering of women in general, and made much of Japan’s own suffering from Allied bombing.

Consequently, much has been read into the speech of Emperor Akihito the following day. “Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated,” he said, and referred to the Japanese people’s “earnest desire for the continuation of peace”.

From close readings of the Delphic statements from the Chrysanthemum Throne, many Japanese analysts are convinced the 81-year-old emperor detests Abe and deeply distrusts the direction he has taken in revising pre-1945 history and stretching the postwar constitution to allow Japan’s military to operate in distant conflicts. Akihito has surprised many with direct references to wartime incidents, and he seems to take issue with Abe’s about moving on. Japan needs, he has said, to “study and learn from the history of this war”. Earlier this year, the emperor’s son, Crown Prince Naruhito, also seemed to reproach Abe, by saying Japan should “correctly pass down history” to future generations.

2 . Rajapaksa’s decline

Elsewhere in Asia, one would-be king has got his comeuppance. Mahinda Rajapaksa, ousted as Sri Lanka’s president in January, failed in a bid to come back as prime minister through parliamentary elections held on Monday.

Rajapaksa won a seat himself, but his coalition did not win a majority of seats and its vote fell in every part of the country, including the region regarded as Rajapaksa’s home base.

The result is likely to strengthen the resolve of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to go after Rajapaksa for corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power during his rule. His brother Basil, the former economic development minister, is under arrest and charged with embezzling public funds. Another brother, Gotabhaya, the former defence secretary, has been summonsed by the Bribery Commission.

The former president’s wife, one-time national representative in the Miss World and Miss Universe contests, has been questioned by the new Financial Crimes Investigation Division. Government officials have been quoted in the media as saying that one of their sons ordered the killing of a national rugby team member by the presidential security detail, in a dispute over a woman.

Rajapaksa was a vital link in Tony Abbott’s strategy of “stopping the boats” in return for diplomatic support against moves to bring him to book for war crimes during the final battles against the Tamil Tigers in 2009.

3 . Loving Yew

Singapore has just celebrated its 50 years as a separate nation, and now awaits a decision by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on whether to take advantage of the feel-good mood and call an election, several months before it is due, in the hope of reversing the recent drastic decline in the vote for the ruling People’s Action Party.

Amazingly, the anniversary has been accompanied by the staging of a musical about the life of founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister’s father, who died in March aged 91. The breezy production has been playing to packed audiences at the Singapore Repertory Theatre, who weep and cheer at episodes of the great man’s life under British colonial rule, Japanese occupation, and the transition to independence and separation from Malaysia. The composer, Dick Lee (no relation), has come up with “emotional tunes set against a driving pace”. Towards the end, LKY rips into a song entitled “Stand Alone” to express his sense of fear and vulnerability about the tiny new nation.

It may be some time before we see less reverential treatment: perhaps a vaudeville in the style of Keating! The Musical, in which a prime minister rounds up a bunch of young Catholic social activists, a security official known as “the Penguin” keeps them in cold storage until they confess to being communist dupes, a Catholic bishop is pressured to disavow them, and the prime minister successfully sues various opposition politicians and media groups for impugning his motives. All part of the LKY story.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 22, 2015 as "Thai bomb possibly aimed at military PM".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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