Clash over Samui blast risks probe

Clash over Samui blast risks probe

ANALYSIS: Police chafe at military's haste in declaring political motive.

The military says it is providing support for police and boosting the confidence of tourists by sticking close to the Koh Samui bomb investigation. Police say military spokesmen are retarding the investigation. (Photo by Thanarak Khunton)
The military says it is providing support for police and boosting the confidence of tourists by sticking close to the Koh Samui bomb investigation. Police say military spokesmen are retarding the investigation. (Photo by Thanarak Khunton)

The investigation into Friday's bomb blast at the Central Festival Samui car park could be jeopardised by remarks made by the government and the military claiming a political motive was behind the explosion, police say.

Just hours after the bomb rocked the underground car park that night, deputy government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd and army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said the blast was motivated by political sentiment and they linked it to previous bombings in Bangkok. They downplayed early reports of a link to southern militants.

Maj Gen Sansern spoke just a day after top police investigators from Bangkok were sent to the island. He said the Samui blast was either the work of an old political power clique, or anti-coup elements who have links to the Bangkok bombings.

Army commander Gen Udomdej Sitabutr also leaned towards blaming political violence, saying he did not believe the Samui blast was the work of militants widening their attacks to other areas. It is either a personal conflict between the shopping mall and its former employees, or political violence, he said.

The comments from both men seem to ignore the police investigation which continues to collect evidence to find possible motives. Officers have one piece of key evidence so far — the pickup truck carrying the bomb suggests the attackers might be involved with insurgent groups in the far South.

While the government and military have repeatedly brushed aside this possibility, police have not ruled out any possible motive including the effort to widen insurgent violence to other areas in the South.

The vehicle used to carry out the bomb attack was stolen from Yala's Yaha district. The bomb used was similar to ones in the southernmost provinces and it is highly likely that someone involved with insurgents was part of the attack. Moreover, some people from the deep South who now live on Koh Samui and several security guards at the shopping mall from the southernmost provinces are being held for questioning.

However, police also admit the motive could be a political conflict because they have yet to come up with a plausible reason as to why the shopping centre was targeted.

Police also believe the choice of destination is strange because there are easier targets on Phuket and Krabi and it would be easier to flee from those places.

Political violence seems to make sense because Surat Thani and the resort island are a political base of the People's Democratic Reform Committee's (PDRC) leader Suthep Thaugsuban whose anti-Yingluck Shinawatra street protests culminated in the coup.

Although the political violence theory has not been ruled out, the government and military reaction to the bombing has put the investigators in an awkward position. It also raises the question that maybe the government is trying to cover up something.

A police source admitted the comments by Maj Gen Sansern and security authorities place more pressure on investigators.

The source said it appeared the government is "directing" the police investigation as they are trying to build the case. If it turns out the blast is associated with political conflicts, police will be criticised for dancing to the government's tune, said the source.

But if the case turns out to be something else, police will be under pressure to act independently.

"There are signs of discord between police and the military and the government. Police think the government's move is hindering the investigation. A senior police officer even said the military is standing in the way and police can't do anything,"  the source said.

He said the sooner the driver of the pickup truck which carried the bomb is arrested the better. That person is seen as the key to the investigation.

Meanwhile, Pol Maj Gen Somchai Nittayabowornkul, deputy commissioner of the Provincial Police Region 8 Bureau, said Tuesday "the man in the blue shirt" has been cleared of any involvement in the bomb attack. The man was captured by security cameras and initially suspected to be the driver of the pickup truck.

Pol Maj Gen Somchai said the man, identified as Veera Phancharoen, 39, a resident of Surat Thani, reported to police on Monday night to say he had nothing to do with the bombing after his photo was distributed.

Mr Veera, 39, said he rode a motorcycle to the shopping mall at 11am for a coffee and then left. A relative who saw his photo advised him to meet police. Pol Maj Gen Somchai said police collected DNA samples from Mr Veera to compare with samples collected from the blast scene before releasing him.

Three more security guards were detained by police for questioning and are now under military custody, which puts the number of security guards in custody at seven. Three guards from the deep South were on duty the night of the explosion.

Pol Maj Gen Somchai said police will collect DNA samples from the three security guards who are being detained by soldiers. 

He said a review of security cameras showed the stolen truck was seen at a checkpoint in Songkhla's Singha Nakhon district in the afternoon of April 9. However, the footage does not show the driver's face.

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