Chaos in capital as bombings stir worries

Chaos in capital as bombings stir worries

Damage and injuries minimal but government's image takes a beating during high-profile Asean event

Bomb squad officers check the Government Complex on Chaeng Watthana Road after one of two bombs went off on Friday. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Bomb squad officers check the Government Complex on Chaeng Watthana Road after one of two bombs went off on Friday. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

Bangkok was plunged into chaos on Friday after a series of bombings put citizens and authorities alike on alert for unattended objects. Damage and injuries were minimal but the timing of the incidents, during a high-profile Asean meeting, suggested embarrassing the government was the aim.

The incidents occurred on the same day that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, now in charge of a civilian government, made his first visit to the Royal Thai Police head office, which he has pledged to oversee directly.

Every move by the perpetrators and every response by security authorities attracted extra attention from a large foreign media corps in the capital to cover a meeting of Asean foreign ministers. They were joined by many other senior diplomats including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

Security was tightened around the Centara Grand at CentralWorld, where the Asean meetings were under way involving ministers from 31 countries in all.

The internet was soon alight with rumours and speculation, which authorities moved quickly to dispel. For a start, they, said, no areas of the city had been closed.

As for the identity of the perpetrators, army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong said the usual suspects were involved, without naming names. Some took that to mean red-shirt sympathisers loyal to fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

However, national police chief Chakthip Chaijinda said an initial investigation found the bombings were probably carried out by the same group of insurgents who perpetrated attacks in seven southern and central provinces in August 2016.

Gen Apirat said intelligence services had been aware of plans for trouble but did not expect the attacks to happen so soon.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon told reporters the perpetrators were trying to create a “situation”. When asked whether it was connected to the military junta’s recent relinquishing of power, he said, “I don’t know either, let authorities investigate first.”

The trouble began on Thursday afternoon when two men were spotted dropping a suspicious object outside the police headquarters on Rama I Road. A police source said on Friday that it was a bomb set to go off at 8am that morning.

The pair were arrested in Chumphon province on Friday.

Seven bombs in all were reported in five locations in Bangkok and Nonthaburi on Friday, with five of them going off, hurting three people. A fourth person was later reported to be receiving hospital treatment for a shrapnel wound from the Chong Nonsi incident.

The blasts included the one at the Chong Nonsi BTS station, the Government Complex on Chaeng Watthana Road, and the Royal Thai Armed Forces headquarters. Also targeted was the King Power MahaNakhon tower near the Chong Nonsi station. King Power is a major backer of the Bhumjaithai Party, one of the partners in the coalition government.

At least three suspicious objects were reported, including a box placed under an escalator at the Silom BTS station on Friday morning, and a bag left unattended at a bus stop on Phahon Yothin Road during rush hour.

Gen Prayut, the Royal Thai Army and political parties, including Pheu Thai, all condemned the acts.

“The Pheu Thai Party condemns the group of individuals who may be taking advantage of the situation to spread fear among citizens,” the Thaksin-alligned lead party in the opposition said on its Facebook page. “We hope the situation will improve rather than be hijacked for political gain.”

The explosives sparked a rumour about a plan to declare the capital a security area but Maj Gen Thanathip Sawangsaeng, a spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command, bluntly denied it. “Please do not panic,” he said.

Authorities remained on alert for incidents of all kinds in case they were linked to the unrest. Out of four fires on Friday in the Pratunam area, one was suspected to be arson and objects resembling bomb fragments were said to have been found in the wreckage. 

At the Office of the Permanent Secretary of Defence, officials said an explosion in the shrubs outside the entrance was caused by a spotlight that had malfunctioned. However, a reporter said marks caused by ball bearings could be seen on the granite sign.

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