The biggest story — not to mention worry — here in Bangkok recently was the recent Valentine’s Day “bombing” by the so-called Iranian “terrorists”. To call what happened a terrorist bombing, though, may not be quite accurate; it was more like a few small explosions gone awry. Whatever the terminology, it did raise a few eyebrows — and perhaps singe a few in the process. Two weeks later, people are still wondering: was this some sort of Keystone Cops-like mishap or a real threat?
In case you missed it, in a nutshell, this is what happened: a couple of Iranian “visitors,” miffed that a Bangkok taxi driver refused to take them to where they asked to go, hurled a grenade — or a similar explosive device — at the taxi. Luckily, the driver was standing outside the taxi at the time and was not injured. His vehicle — as you can see from the photo above — was not so fortunate. Soon afterwards, a police car arrived on the scene (two amazing facts here: the fact that the cop arrived so quickly, and that he was not on a motorcycle, which is what almost all officers are seen driving in Bangkok) and one of the nutty Iranians hurled another grenade at that car too. However, this device ricocheted off the vehicle, hit the Iranian and exploded, blowing off both of his legs. He didn’t die and nobody else was injured, but his buddy was later arrested at the airport, waiting to board a flight to Malaysia — which is where I was when all this lunacy was taking place.
This incident happened in and around Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi 71, which is not that far from where I live. In fact, one of my walking routes takes me through the neighborhood where these explosions happened. From newspaper accounts, three Iranian men where living at a rented house in that soi. Some observers think that the “bombs” were intended for the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, or more specifically, the Israeli ambassador. Coming in the wake of similar bomb attacks on “Israeli diplomatic targets” in India and Georgia, this led to all sorts of speculation and accusations, further ramping up the tensions between Iran and Israel … and putting Thailand right in the middle of the nasty feud. This sort of drama is definitely NOT what Thailand needs in order to restore the confidence of tourists after the horrific flooding late last year. What’s next; another massive Red Shirt rally? Actually, that’s a scarily plausible possibility too.
After all this bomb-bastic activity, the knee-jerk reaction from authorities has been “heightened security” around the city. In Thai terms, this means squads of police officers making random checks of bags — almost always those of foreigners — at “strategic” spots around town. Every other day it seems there is a photo in the newspaper of some grinning tourist in Bangkok having their bag examined by an equally gleeful police officer. Yeah, baby, having fun in Thailand!
For several years now, there have been regular bag searches on the subway system in Bangkok. But the total lack of thoroughness makes these checks a bit of a joke. As you pass through the electro-gate, a security guard will glance at your bag, maybe shine his or her flashlight in the general direction of the contents inside, and then motion you on. Next, please! I’ve never had one of my bags actually opened and searched. For some reason, the city’s other high-tech transport system, the BTS Skytrain, does not even bother with bag searches at all. We wouldn’t anything resembling consistency here, would we?
But it’s the other type of random bag searches that are a definite source of frustration — and irritation — for expat residents. Previously, these bag checks were ostensibly for the purpose of uncovering narcotics of some sort, but nowadays “security” is given as the reason. I’ve been stopped by police twice in the past decade. The first time I was stopped while walking to the boat pier and my bag was pawed through by an overzealous cop; the other time I was on the back of a motorcycle, stopped at a red light, and interrogated by yet another grim-looking stormtrooper: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Blah, blah, blah. Totally useless.
A few weeks ago there was a letter-to-the-editor in the Bangkok Post from an African-American resident who was recently stopped by police in the Prakonong district of Bangkok and asked to produce his passport. Like most foreign residents, the man sensibly had a photocopy of his passport but not the real thing. That apparently did not satisfy the local copper, no doubt suspecting this guy was an “African drug dealer”, and he ended up taking the American to the local police station for further interrogation. Or was the cop — as so often happens here in this magic kingdom — just looking to have his palmed greased with some cash? Another one of my regular customers, a 40-ish European man, was stopped in front of Benjasiri Park on Sukhumvit and asked for ID. Again, there was no reason for this guy being singled out for a search. At what point does “good security” cross over to being nothing but sheer harassment? It definitely takes the shine off Thailand’s sanook façade. Of course there is a need for improved security if the situation warrants it, but searching the bags of random pedestrians doesn’t strike me as anything close to being an effective tactic.
One member of the opposition Democrat party was quoted in the Bangkok Post last week as saying: “Some cabinet members compared the (Iranian bombing) suspect with vocational students engaged in a brawl,” he said. “Don’t make it sound like a trivial matter.” Actually, all these so-called “brawls” among vocational students in the Bangkok ARE a very serious matter. Several times each month there are reports of fights between students from rival schools that end in bloodshed. The perpetrators might be driving motorcycles, they might be riding on a bus with their “gang”, or they might be on foot. Whatever the scene, an argument ensues, knives or guns come out, and someone is either injured badly or killed. These are not rare cases, but alarmingly frequent occurrences of stupidity and intimidation. It may not rank up there with Iranian terrorism suspects in terms of shock value, but it’s certainly not “trivial.” In fact, it’s a big problem that does concern Bangkok residents. Maybe they should be posting these security guards at the entrances of the vocational schools and bus stops.