The World Today for August 15, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Thai-style Democracy

Thailand looks to be destined for more political violence.

After some two years of authoritarian-style order, a string of bombings across the Southeast Asian country left four people dead and more than 20 people injured last week.

But as the police look for the perpetrators, experts say that the timing and nature of the attacks suggest that they were not linked to a foreign extremist group like the Islamic State (IS) or Al Qaeda. Instead, the coordinated bombings were likely the work of local forces that oppose the military junta that took power in a 2014 coup.

The Puea Thai Party of former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose governments were ousted by the military, issued a “sharp denial” of any involvement in the blasts on Saturday, Reuters reported.

No group has claimed responsibility for the bombings. On Monday, the Thai army said it had detained several people for questioning after three more explosions rattled southern Thailand on Sunday, while police claimed to have a “clear idea” of the identity of a single mastermind behind the attacks.

There are three reasons for the assumption that PTP backers may have carried out the attacks, writes security expert Thitinan Pongsudhirak in the Asian Nikkei Review.

The bombings came within a week of a referendum that established a new constitution that legitimizes the junta and grants its generals more powers. The bombs exploded during the 84th birthday celebrations of Thailand’s Queen Sirikit, a likely allusion to the leaders of the junta, who hail from a regiment known as the Queen’s Guard. And the perpetrators targeted tourist resorts, apparently seeking to undermine the junta’s promise to keep the peace and protect the golden goose.

The likelihood that neither IS nor Al Qaeda was involved is not a cause for much cheer, Pongsudhirak argues, as the bombings portend “more volatility and potential violence.”

The new constitution – which was established by a 61 percent majority in a popular referendum on Aug. 7 – offers a fig leaf for military rule. However, turnout was low and voters were kept in the dark about the implications of the changes by a “farcical” ban on criticism of the text – backed by a possible ten-year prison sentence, writes the Economist.

Among its provisions, the new constitution enshrines a system of voting that will ensure no political party wins a majority in the lower house of parliament and allows the military to hand-pick all 250 members of the upper house. The generals will therefore need the backing of only a quarter of the legislators in the lower house to elect a prime minister of their choosing.

In short, it leaves “Thailand’s increasingly repressive generals at the controls while creating the illusion that military rule has ended,” argues the New York Times.

For those paying only sporadic attention, Thailand’s red-shirts-versus-yellow-shirts political wrangling can be difficult to follow. But one might well call this depressing step backward yet another example of Thai-style democracy.

Since four military officers brought an end to the absolute rule of the king and instituted a constitutional monarchy in a bloodless coup in 1932, Thailand has had no less than 20 different constitutions and at least 11 more coups.

In between military dictatorships, the country has repeatedly attempted to commit itself to democracy. But as in all developing countries, majority rule can be problematic, as the majority is poor and the minority rich and powerful.

That’s the essence of the country’s current dilemma. The rural “red shirts” want democracy without meddling, while the urban “yellow shirts” want the right to tip the scales.

Backed by the red shirts, the political parties of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister have won every election since 2001 due to their popularity among the rural poor – who make up as much as 70 percent of Thailand’s population.

But neither the military nor the urban elite can tolerate majority rule, which threatens to erode the longstanding dominance of Bangkok big shots.

In the past, that conflict has led to a seemingly endless cycle of elections, protests and coups. Now, it seems, the polarization is particularly hostile.

“I’m surprised there isn’t more political violence,” Zachary Abuza, a U.S. National War College expert on Southeast Asia, told Time.

This month’s bombings are a worrying sign that may soon change.

WANT TO KNOW

Faces Resurfacing

Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist insurgent group, released a video Sunday showing that dozens of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls are alive more than two years after their capture – the first such proof to surface in months.

But some of the 276 kidnapped schoolgirls have since been killed in Nigerian bombings, said the group in its video.

The girls in the video are filmed wearing long Islamic gowns and guarded by masked, camouflaged men. Some held babies who are likely the product of rape following forced marriages to Boko Haram fighters, writes the LA Times.

“We are suffering here,” said one girl, identified as Maidu Yakubu, in the video. She pleaded for the Nigerian government to release imprisoned members of Boko Haram in return for the girls’ freedom.

A masked fighter representing the Boko Haram faction led by Abubakar Shekau also called for the release of prisoners in exchange for the girls’ release and for the Nigerian government to stop fighting the group.

Deadly Train Rides

A 34-year-old woman died Sunday from injuries sustained during an attack on a train in eastern Switzerland Saturday that wounded five others, said Swiss police.

The attacker, a still unnamed 27-year-old man, also died from injuries he received in the attack, which occurred in the eastern canton of St. Gallen. The man, who appeared to have acted alone, was armed with a knife and had started a blaze on the train by pouring flammable liquids that caught fire.

The attacker’s motive was unclear and no evidence has been found that the attack was related to terrorism or politically motivated following a raid on the man’s home, said Swiss police. The alleged assailant did not have a prior criminal record in either St. Gallen or his neighboring home canton.

Closing in

Kurdish Peshmerga forces launched a renewed attack on Islamic State (IS) in Iraq early Sunday as part of a wider campaign to retake Mosul from the terrorist organization, said Kurdish officials Sunday.

The Peshmerga’s advance began following a round of heavy shelling and air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition against IS, reported Reuters. Militants from IS retaliated by firing mortars at advancing troops and detonating at least two car bombs.

A commander from the Peshmerga said a dozen villages had been recaptured from IS militants as Kurdish forces make their way toward Gwer, the target of the Kurdish operation about 25 miles southeast of Mosul.

Retaking Gwer and repairing a bridge that crosses the Grand Zab River would enable Peshmerga fighters to open a new front around Mosul, said Reuters.

Along with the Iraqi army, Peshmerga forces are gradually establishing positions around Mosul, the hardline Sunni militants’ de facto capital in Iraq since 2014, when IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the creation of the “caliphate.”

Mosul, some 250 miles north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, is the largest urban area under IS control, and its recapture would effectively signal the defeat of IS in Iraq, said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

DISCOVERIES

Not So Lone Wolves

Wild wolves have been making a comeback in the forests of Germany over the past 20 years, but the 66-strong pack of metallic wolves assembled in front of Berlin’s central station has a specific purpose.

They’re here to warn about the dangers of the racist and anti-immigrant sentiments that some say are creeping into German society.

It’s a traveling exhibition entitled “The Wolves are Back“, conceived and executed by the German artist Rainer Opolka.

Opolka said the exhibition is intended to get people thinking about the changes in public discourse that have taken place since Germany took in nearly 1.1 million refugees last year.

“I want to start a discussion,” Opolka told the Guardian earlier this month. “In Germany, it looks like racism has now become standard. I don’t want people to get used to that.”

The wolves come in eight different designs, including varieties that mimic Nazi salutes or represent unwitting followers.

So far, the wolves have been displayed in Dresden – home to the anti-Islam Pegida movement – and Potsdam, in addition to the German capital. Opolka said he plans to show the exhibition in other major German cities like Hamburg and Cologne after it leaves Berlin later this month.

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