THAILAND TERROR: Bomb rips through busy Bangkok near shrine…security experts fear muslim expansion of terror into the North of country
In the wake of a bomb explosion in central Bangkok, the Telegraph speaks to Thailand correspondent Tom Vater about who might be responsible for the attack
Without anyone claiming ownership, it is difficult to lay suspicions at the doorstep of any particular group, writes Damon Perry, a PhD student who is in Bangkok.
It is worth noting, however, that Thailand’s military has ruled the country since May 2014, when it ousted an elected government after months of anti-government protests. In February of this year, possibly in protest against the junta, two pipe bombs exploded outside a luxury shopping mall in the same area. No one was hurt and no one claimed responsibility, but the timing was significant. Just a month previously, a national assembly hand-picked by the junta ruled that the former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra could not enter politics for five years.
She is seen by her supporters – the ‘red shirts’ – as a champion of the rural poor undemocratically ousted from power. She is seen by her critics – particularly the ‘yellow shirts’ – as a puppet for her self-exiled brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted from office in 2006 due to corruption allegations. The division between these two factions runs deep in Thai society and the army’s control of Thailand has merely plastered over the crack rather than healed it. The attack on Monday may well have been related to this political struggle, though it is hard to imagine how either side would gain from targeting civilians, particularly in a touristic area.
Photo: PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP
Thailand has also been struggling with an insurgency in its predominantly-Muslim ‘Deep South’. The insurgent groups, the most powerful of which is the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), seek autonomy in Thailand’s three southern border provinces—Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala. Whilst the fighting has mostly been contained in these provinces, this changed in in March 2012, when a series of bombs killed three people at a shopping complex in the predominantly Buddhist city of Hat Yai in Songkhla province.
Eleven others were killed in co-ordinated blasts across the rest of the region. In December 2013, in the Sadao district of Songkhla, several bombs exploded, wounding 27, and several others were defused. On the same day, a bomb big enough to destroy a 10-storey building was discovered and defused in Phuket.
For some analysts, these attacks marked a clear expansion of the insurgents’ target zone within Thailand. Others denied there was a deliberate shift in strategy, noting the lack of subsequent attacks outside the Deep South. Monday’s attack is bound to raise the question as to whether Islamic insurgents have resumed and amplified this strategy. What may strengthen suspicions along these lines is the fact that since the junta seized power, peace talks between the insurgents, led by BRN, and the Thai government, have stalled. The last talks between the two sides occurred in December 2013, when Shinawatra was in office.Damon Perry in Bangkok says local media reports many of the injured were tourists from China and Taiwan.
Appeals for Chinese translators made at the police hospital where many of the injured were taken, seemed to confirm these reports. All UN agencies, of which there are many in Bangkok, were requested to conduct a “100 per cent staff check”.
Initially, it was unclear whether the blast was from an exploding gas tank or a bomb. Subsequent speculations that a bomb had been placed on a motorbike, causing several passing cars to explode, have now been put aside after government officials stated that a TNT bomb was placed under a bench at the intersection.
According to local media, the police found several unexploded devices were in the nearby area. One of them was reportedly detonated.
Thai officials have stated that a state of emergency will not be declared. But all 438 schools administered by the Bangkok Municipal Authority will be closed.
Dr Michael Buehler, an expert in Asian politics at SOAS University of London, said it was unlikely the bomb was planted by insurgents in the south.
I think it is very difficult at this point to know who is behind this, but what I find problematic are the claims this came from the insurgents in the south. I think this is to do with national politics; if you look at past incidents involving bomb attacks, it is always in the context of rifts between red shirts and yellow shirts, rather than conflict in the south.
“The insurgents there have no history of attacks like this outside that area and it is not clear why they would change their tactics.”
Thailand’s red and yellow shirts are two bitterly divided camps that have sporadically driven protests in the country. Red shirts began as a group in support of deposed Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as prime minister in 2006.
The yellow shirts were opposed to Mr Thaksin and led protests which are said to have led to him being deposed.
Anusit Kunakorn, secretary of the National Security Council, said the prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief, was closely monitoring the situation, AP reports.
“We still don’t know for sure who did this and why,” Prawit Wongsuwon, the deputy prime minister, told reporters. “We are not sure if it is politically motivated, but they aim to harm our economy and we will hunt them down.”
Frances Geoghegan, a senior tour operator that offers packages to Thailand, predicts the bombing will cause a substantial drop in prices at the city’s “uber luxury” hotels.
It has been suggested that one of the perpetrators’ motives for attacking the renowned Erawan shrine was to cripple Thailand’s tourism industry.
It was a huge shock. As someone who has visited Bangkok many times, it’s something I would never expect or fear. Whilst there have been isolated incidents in the south of the country in the past, bombings such as this in Bangkok are very rare. Although Bangkok is a big hub for south east Asia, there are now so many alternative ways of accessing the popular beach areas of Thailand without transiting Bangkok (eg via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and the Middle East ), that I don’t believe it will impact greatly on tourism in the long term to Thailand as a destination.
However in the short term I think it will greatly affect the traditional stopover traffic to Bangkok. You could argue that there is now never going to be a safer time to visit the city, and I would envisage that many of the cities’ uber-luxurious hotels may well slash their rates accordingly.
It’s noticeable already that extra security has been put in place at some of the cities major hotels.
Further details are emerging about the Erawan shrine at the heart of the Bangkok attack.
It is said to be deeply meaningful both politically and religiously for the Thai people and features a statue of Phra Phrom, the Thai represenation of Brahma, the Hindu God of creation.
The shrine is also relatively new, built in 1956 in a bid to ward off bad karma which may have been caused by the construction of the Erawan Hotel. The troubled project saw spiralling costs, worker injuries and a mysterious loss of building materials.
David Blair, the Telegraph’s Chief Foreign Correspondent, says the explosion is one of the most mysterious and asks whether one of Thailand’s rival political factions might have organised the blast.
So far, no group has claimed responsibility for planting the bomb that inflicted such bloodshed upon central Bangkok. Whoever was behind the atrocity probably intended to kill foreign tourists – but for now, little more can be said.
There are three broad possibilities for who might have been responsible. The first is that terrorists from al-Qaeda or, more remotely, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) might have detonated the bomb. Bangkok is far outside their normal theatre of operations, but that fact would magnify the psychological impact of any successful attack. If your sole aim is to kill Westerners, moreover, then Thailand’s capital might serve as relatively soft target.
But this still looks like a remote possibility for one reason: if al-Qaeda or Isil had bombed Bangkok, they would have every reason to claim responsibility. Either group would seize the moment to broadcast an attack they would view as a resounding success. The absence of any such announcement means the finger of suspicion must point elsewhere.