Thrust into the spotlight
A bombing suspect's arrest has brought the world's attention to sleepy Nong Chok.
Located just 50km from the heart of Bangkok, Nong Chok district could have been pincered from the southern provinces and relocated on the eastern outskirts of the capital.
Place of worship: The Muslim faith remains a strong part of life in Nong Chok. The area is home to 45 mosques, the best known of which is Al Madanee Masjid, known locally as ‘Man Gus’.
Leaving the highway to take the main road to the Nong Chok area, it feels like taking a leisurely drive in the country. There are no high rises and the road is surrounded by large open fields on both sides, a peaceful, isolated oasis far from the chaos of the city.
But that rural idyll came crashing down last Saturday afternoon when 100 police from the Crime Suppression Division and soldiers raided the Pool Anant Apartment in Nong Chok. They arrested a foreigner in possession of a fake Turkish passport in connection with the Erawan Shrine bombing on Aug 17, which killed 20 people and injured more than 100.
Inside room 414, police found bomb-making equipment including 5mm ball bearings, detonators, metal pipes and chemical containers. They also found more than 200 fake passports — mostly Turkish — believed to be connected to a people smuggling ring.
Police claimed the raid was a result of painstaking examination of intercepted telephone calls from three Turkish roaming service numbers detected at the time of the bombing.
One of the numbers was traced to the condo, where the 100-man specialist intelligence team under the direct control of the NCPO made the raid; the first arrest in the case.
Shortly after the Erawan bombing the police chief ordered all 88 metropolitan stations to search 440 locations where “foreigners” live under the directive “Close the city, to close the criminal’s den”.
The order was reissued on Aug 23 and both Nong Chok and the neighbouring Min Buri station reported back that they had found nothing suspicious. A police source said the main reason for the renewed search was information relating to a condo in Phaya Thai and three other locations, but they resulted in no arrests.
The Nong Chok suspect eventually identified himself to police as Bilal Mohammed, 28. Although the fake passports that were in his possession are Turkish, his nationality is not known.
Two days later another suspect, Yusufu Mieraili, 25, was taken into custody at the border in Sa Kaeo. His fingerprints matched those taken from the Pool Anant Apartment.
When he was arrested Mr Mieraili was travelling on a Chinese passport which showed he was from the Xinjiang region, home to the ethnic Uighurs, many of whom flee to Turkey to escape persecution in China. The authenticity of the passport is still being checked.
Police are seeking a third man in relation to the Pool Anant condo, Ahmet Bozonglan, a Turkish national who rented five rooms from Jan 27, 2014, including room 414.
As the week developed, police started to believe the Erawan bombing was connected to a Uighur smuggling ring, although no plausible theory has been expounded yet.
Sleepy, little Nong Chok was now at the centre of a police investigation into a major bombing.
BORN FROM THE SOUTH
Nong Chok district is home to 117,000 people and 70% of them are Muslim.
Show of force: Soldiers stand guard during the raid last Saturday on the Pool Anant Apartments.
When entering the township, it has a distinctive Muslim identity. Mosques are found on many corners. Halal food carts and restaurants add vibrancy and colour to the town, where laughing schoolboys in pressed white shirts and schoolgirls in hijabs can be seen jumping on and off buses after school. Men with flowing beards and taqiyya caps atop their heads can be seen in tea shops sinking their drinks and buried in a book.
Signs are in Thai, English and Arabic. Listening to the conversations in the shops, Thai is spoken with a tinge of the Yawi dialect spoken in the South.
This should come as no surprise. Nong Chok traces its history back 118 years, when the first settlers migrated from the southern provinces during the reign of King Rama V. One of the reasons was to live and work along Khlong Saen Saep, which was being dug by order of the king.
Many of the first migrants were from Pattani and the reason they chose the area was simply because it was located next to a river, locals said.
When the area became more developed and was occupied mainly by Muslim people, a new wave of migrants from the Northeast arrived, attracted by the affordable rent. Many of the new residents stayed on, converted to Islam and married local women.
A Nong Chok police officer, who did not want to be named, told Spectrum that in the past few years, more Muslims from the South had moved to the area as they sought to escape unrest.
Wisrut Lohwithee, a Muslim leader in Min Buri and Nong Chok, said 70% of people currently living in Nong Chok are Muslim. The number decreased from more than 90% a decade ago. One of the main reasons, he said, is that non-Muslims have moved to the area as new housing projects have been built in the intervening years.
Mr Wisrut said a number of foreign Muslims had also moved into the area to conduct business, mainly exports and imports. Their numbers had not been recorded, but they came from countries such as Turkey and Pakistan.
“The locals did not pay special attention to foreigners because there have been no incidents in the district [until the arrest of the Erawan bomb suspects],” he said.
'NEW TO FOREIGNERS'
After last weekend’s arrest, eight senior police officers from Nong Chok station, including the superintendent, deputy superintendent and inspector, were transferred because they failed to report the suspect in their area.
When Spectrum visited the three-storey police station, located near a busy market, there were only five officers on duty on the first floor.
But despite the reduced number of personnel, the station still appeared to be running smoothly with the help of 12 female interns, dressed in university uniforms and wearing hijabs.
Our team was escorted to the third floor of the station by an intern who politely informed us that there are no top officers in the station “at the moment”.
One of the few senior officers still on duty was from the case administration department. He told Spectrum the crime rate in Nong Chok is quite low compared to surrounding areas.
“Most criminal cases here involve the trade and possession of amphetamine,” he said. “What happened on Saturday was probably the biggest case we have ever had here.”
But the officer added there is a large transient population of foreign Muslims who he said are attracted by the large number of mosques in the area. There are also many Muslim preachers who teach in Nong Chok or make a stopover before continuing their journey.
“Nong Chok is new to foreigners,” he said. “Therefore, accommodation owners in this area still don’t understand the system and that they have to report to police when there foreigners are checking into their residences.”
Of the 45 mosques in the Nong Chok area, one is best known among locals and foreigners who come to pray.
IN GOD FAITH: A local Muslim man prays at one of Nong Chok’s many mosques.
The locals call the mosque "Man Gus", but its official name is Al Madanee Masjid. The mosque is situated on Liep Waree Road, about 8km from the Pool Anant Apartments.
Al Madanee Masjid is a two-storey building with a very large parking lot. As you approach, the stains and faded colour of the building begin to reveal themselves.
Inside the building it is surprisingly cool and peaceful, and Spectrum observed at least 100 Muslim men taking a nap on the floor.
One worshipper, who identified himself as "Bang", said foreigners frequently visit the mosque to pray and have a restricted area on the second floor which no one else is allowed to access without permission from the mosque officer.
“The area downstairs is where all locals come to pray. We always know who is who here,” Bang explained.
“There are some unfamiliar faces that come in here, both locals and foreigners, but we couldn’t care less.
"We are here to pray, we are here for God. We leave all problems outside and we don’t discuss politics when we are inside. Therefore, we don’t care who comes here since they are here for God, just like us."
The senior police officer told Spectrum this is the most challenging part of conducting investigations in Nong Chok, as the local population does not tend to report to police when they notice unfamiliar faces in the area.
“They respect each other as fellow Muslims and they won’t rat each other out,” he said.
Muslim leader Mr Wisrut confirmed many foreigners prayed at the mosque but added that “they cannot speak our languages”.
OUT OF SIGHT
Near the Pool Anant Apartments, very few of the locals Spectrum spoke to had any knowledge of the suspect arrested last Saturday, saying they only became aware of him after seeing the news reports.
But nearby restaurants are unlikely to be frequented by the suspect as they don’t sell halal food.
Staff at a nearby Tesco Lotus and a KFC which sells halal food said they had never seen the suspect before.
However, the KFC workers said they sometimes saw "khaek kao", a term used to refer to fair-skinned South Asians or people from the Middle East.
Human rights lawyer Surapong Kongchantuk, who works on migration issues, said there were foreigners hiding in the Nong Chok and Min Buri areas, but they were not Uighurs. He said those staying illegally in the area where mostly Rohingya and some Muslim people who had overstayed their visas.
“There are some Rohingya traffickers who live in this area since they have a large Muslim community where they are able to get support and are able to practise their religion,” Mr Surapong said.
“Normally, the roti sellers who live in this area are not Thai. They are mostly Rohingya.”
While police have released few details on the two suspects in custody, Mr Surapong, who has worked extensively on the trafficking of Rohingya and Uighur people, strongly believes they are involved in people smuggling.
He said one of his investigators had identified both men as major human traffickers, but gave no further details.
Comunity ties: All above, the close-knit Muslim community has attracted more migrants from the South and abroad.
Living history: Nong Chok has been a proud Muslim enclave since its foundation 118 years ago.