Hard evidence behind city blast lacking

rungrawee's picture
           While there is no conclusive answer as of yet about the perpetrators of the Erawan shrine bombing in Bangkok and their motives, one thing that needs to be stressed is that it will do more harm than good if the government's investigation fails to examine the hard evidence, and instead aims to minimise the economic repercussions.
          There are three main scenarios that might have led to this worst-ever explosion in Thailand, which killed 20 people and wounded more than 130 in one single attack.
          The first suspects are Malay-Muslim militants in southern Thailand, who have waged a violent secessionist struggle against the Buddhist-dominated government. The general perception that the violence has been contained within the predominantly-Malay Muslim southernmost provinces is contrary to the evidence.
          There have been a few bombings outside the usual theatre of operation which bear the hallmark of southern militants. Pertinent to this incident is the 2006 New Year's Eve bombing in Bangkok. A series of bombs went off in several locations, including at a telephone booth not far from the Erawan shrine. The attacks claimed three lives and injured more than 40 people.
          The then government of Gen Surayud Chulanont, installed after the September 2006 coup, blamed it on "those who have lost political interests" - apparently referring to the ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. My sources, similar to some media reports, indicate the materials used for making the bombs and detonation circuits are typically those used by southern militants. No one was ever prosecuted in connection with that bombing.
          Moreover, investigations by security forces suggest southern insurgents are most likely to be responsible for the motorcycle and car bombings that injured 27 people in downtown Sadao district of Songkhla, as well as a defused car bomb in the popular tourist island of Phuket on Dec 22, 2013 and another car bomb on the resort island of Koh Samui on April 10 this year.
          While the southern militants are known to have targeted areas of economic significance, the high explosives (either TNT or C-4) found in the Erawan shrine bombing are not commonly used by the rebels. Bombings and shootings have been an almost daily occurrence in the deep South since 2004.
          The military government has resumed the Kuala Lumpur-hosted peace dialogue initiated in 2013 by the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. However, the leadership of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front in English, or BRN) still does not fully endorse the deal but has sent representatives. There is a fear the army might not be willing to make any real concessions and so prefers to negotiate under a democratic atmosphere.
          The second suspects are transnational jihadists sympathising with the Muslim Uighur cause. The Thai government's deportation of 109 Uighurs - an ethnically Turkish Muslim minority - to China last month drew widespread international condemnation from the UN, Istanbul and other right groups. It violated the principle of non-refoulement , an international law that forbids the state from forcing refugees to return to a country in which they could face persecution.
          Suffering a legitimacy deficit in the eyes of Western countries, the Thai military government used the opportunity to appease Beijing, which had accused the Uighurs of involvement in criminal activities. During that time, the Foreign Ministry was led by a former supreme commander, and one of the coup leaders. Such a blundering diplomatic move is uncharacteristic of Thailand's foreign policy on contentious issues. Soon after deporting the Uighers, the Thai consulate in Istanbul was attacked by angry Turkish protesters.
          Facing economic, political and religious discrimination, the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang have long been fighting for independence from China. There is speculation that international jihadists might have been involved in the liberation struggle. Last year, the IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi mentioned China as one of the countries where the rights of Muslims have been "forcibly seized". Baghdadi told his followers "Your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades".
          It remains unclear to what extent this call has been turned into real action. But the Thai government seems to underestimate how this apparently miscalculated foreign policy move could bring serious danger into its own backyard. With evidence from the bombing scene leading to the presumption that the perpetrator is not Thai, but Caucasian or Arab, this theory is perhaps gaining more weight - though some note that transnational jihadists are commonly quick to publicly claim responsibility.
          The last plausible perpetrators could be resentful anti-establishment individuals, who may not necessarily be part of the leadership or given "an order" from the exiled ex-leader - as some might like to blame Thaksin for any evil happening in this country. It is undeniable there have been cases of disgruntled individual red shirts who take matters into their own hands and resort to violence. Their attempts to plant bombs were previously amateurish.
          Take for example the accident in 2010 when a huge explosion ripped through the five-storey Samanmetta Mansion in Nonthaburi killing the bomb-maker and three others. The explosion occurred as a selfidentified red shirt was trying to assemble a bomb using 10kg of TNT.
          As the rights to political assembly and freedom of expression have been severely suppressed following the 2014 coup, it is plausible those who have lost faith in peaceful political struggle might see violence as an effective way to challenge the all-powerful military regime, which has pledged to restore "happiness".
          However, planting a bomb at a crowded place, where Asian tourists and local Thais were worshipping, is a highly unlikely target for red shirts seeking to make a political statement.
          While the dust has yet to settle and shrapnel is not even completely cleared off the street, the government has already suggested the attack is not related to international terrorism.
          This seems to be the military's classic strategy of "Information Operations" (IO) meant to frame this attack in the hope of minimising the economic repercussions.
          The military could have learned from past mistakes that the use of IO to manipulate the truth would only exacerbate the situation and further erode the government's credibility.
          It is critically important not to jump to hasty conclusions but rather to allow the investigation to be conducted in a professional and transparent manner, and find ways to address the causes that have triggered such a catastrophic event.
Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University's Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs. She formerly worked as an analyst for the International Crisis Group. This article originally appears in the Bangkok Post on 25 August 2015.