Shrine saga throws up bluster, but few facts

Shrine saga throws up bluster, but few facts

The fog of Thai crisis management can be thick and heavy. Almost a fortnight after a powerful bomb explosion rocked the landmark Erawan shrine area in central Bangkok and claimed 20 lives with scores of injuries, Thai authorities have made just about zero progress.

Leading Thai officials from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to the national police chief and their spokesmen have all made different statements on different days, exposing lax crime scene investigation and weak law enforcement.

From the outset, the leading question has centred on the identity and network of the suspected bomber caught on security cameras along with his motive and objective. Added to this question must now be whether it was an indigenous job by disgruntled Thais or a foreign operation on Thai soil by aggrieved parties, and whether it will happen again in a new pattern of terror previously unseen in the country.

To be sure, when Thailand is faced with major internal and external shocks, such as the economic crisis in 1997 and the floods in 2011, Thai officialdom tends to respond in myriad directions that are marked by contradiction, commotion, confusion and eventual convolution. Crisis management is not a Thai forte but Thais are good at muddling along in a makeshift fashion until a given crisis blows over, with the hope that it will not happen again. And then they are adept at picking up the pieces.

On the Bangkok bomb blast, we have heard the prime minister admonishing the police to watch law enforcement TV series like Blue Bloods. The government spokesman, Maj Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd, reacted quickly and suggested it was a home-grown job by political opponents of the military government. Yet both Gen Prayut and Defence Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon kept an open mind to all possibilities. At one point, Pol Gen Somyot Poompanmoung, the national police chief, deferred to karma and the alignment of stars on whether the culprit would be caught or not. His police spokesman, Lt Gen Prawut Thavornsiri, insisted that the worst-ever bombing in Bangkok was not an act of international terrorism. Even if it is terrorism, he elaborated, it cannot be called terrorism because Thailand relies on tourism which contributes almost 10% of GDP.

An Asian man lays a flower garland at the Erawan shrine as tourists start to return to visit the site which was the scene of bomb blast which killed 20 people. Photo: Patipat Janthong

Other comments from public officials have been all over the place. The rumours and conspiracies on social media have also run the gamut from an inside job by government and opposition or by southern insurgents and international terror networks, or even an inside job hired to be done by outsiders.

It is instructive to look at facts on the ground, with particular attention to the target and timing of the bomb attack. The scale, intensity and lethality of the Erawan shrine bombing is unprecedented by Thai standards. If it had happened in the southernmost border provinces where a virulent Malay-Muslim insurgency has raged for 11 years in search of administrative autonomy and political settlement, it would have been less difficult to internalise. Clearly, the heinous perpetration of this magnitude, designed to inflict a high death toll, was an act of terrorism.

Terrorists don't act randomly. They are deliberate in action and objective. That Monday in the evening rush hour became the timing is telling. It is the only day of the week that sidewalk vendors are prohibited by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration from selling garlands and flowers around the Erawan shrine. If the authorities conducted a random sampling of visitors to the Erawan shrine, it is likely that the majority would be East Asians who are not Thai.

To inflict even more serious damage, the bomber could have planted his backpack of explosives at nearby Central World or Siam Paragon. He could have chosen the day before when there was a national bike ride to celebrate Mother's Day, or other days that nearby sidewalk business would have been bustling. The fact that it was a Monday with the Erawan shrine as the chosen target must be looked at exhaustively.

In addition, key witness testimonies are telling. Both the local taxi driver and the motorcycle taxi operator who transported the suspected bomber insisted that he spoke a non-Thai language on his mobile phone. Surely, the drivers have no ulterior motives and they must know whether the Thai language is being spoken or not. The circumstantial timing and target, and direct driver testimonies, appear to be the only reliable facts and information to go on at this point in view of the shoddy forensics of the police.

For any domestic player in Thai politics to undertake this scale of a bombing expedition carries incalculable risks without commensurate results. For either the government and pro-coup forces or anti-coup opponents aligned with the previous regime of Thaksin Shinawatra's clan, it would be a huge risk to kill and injure so many innocent bystanders for no clear outcome.

The anti-government groups could not dislodge the military regime this way, whereas the incumbent coup-appointed government certainly does not need a terrorist incident to further weaken the economy and show its failure to provide public security.

The statue of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, at the Erawan shrine was slightly damaged by the bomb blast. Patipat Janthong

If any link is found, the native perpetrators would be dead meat. He, she or the group would be seen as public enemy No.1 by all Thais. The risk would just not be worth the result. Moreover, there are other tried and tested ways to destabilise the scene. For example, multiple pipe bombs and hand grenades, with low casualty rates and high publicity, have been the preferred method.

The Malay-Muslim insurgents, on the other hand, have shown no inclination so far to take the battle to Bangkok. They have command and control on the ground in their southern enclaves. Carrying out this kind of attack in Bangkok would have taken some preparation over time, and the handiwork is not common to violence in the deep South.

The weight and direction of evidence increasingly points to an outside job. A working hypothesis has now been put forward not by Thai authorities but by Anthony Davis, an investigative journalist and analyst seasoned in security affairs. His finger is on Turkey's fanatical right-wing Grey Wolves movement who may have been motivated to avenge the Thai government's deportation of 109 Muslim Uighurs to an uncertain fate in China last month. The deportation had elicited physical attacks against Thai government offices in Turkey.

As many possibilities abound, the Thai government must not dismiss any potential explanation outright. Thailand must not bow to terrorism of any kind and must go after the culprits with all available means based on the law and hard evidence.

Thai authorities should cooperate with foreign intelligence agencies in case this crime and murder was from outside, including a visit to Turkey to learn more about the fingerprints and handiwork of extremist groups. For example, which other groups have assembled and detonated this kind of bomb?

Thai authorities must be willing to call an act of terrorism by its very name. A terrorist act will not end the Thai tourism industry, provided that it is addressed, prosecuted and prevented from recurring. At the same time, the government should not rule out the possible Uighur connection just because it has cosied up excessively to Beijing. Knowing the truth will allow us to recalibrate and chart our path into the future.

The worst outcome is that the recent blast marks a new pattern in a terror campaign. This possibility requires Thai officialdom to maintain vigilance and promote public alertness in the longer term. The least worst outcome now is that the Erawan shrine bomb attack becomes another one-off, a mysterious incident of violence that slips into Thai obfuscation and oblivion without repeating itself. We would all be lucky if this is the case.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

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.

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