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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Plots, suspects and repercussions of the bombing at Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine

The Thai junta’s botched handling of the shrine bombing has led many people to question whether the army can keep them safe. Could the country break down into serious conflict?
Thai army officers direct people away from the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok. Bloomberg
Thai army officers direct people away from the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok. Bloomberg

Almost two weeks after the bombing at central Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine that killed 20 people and set off a massive manhunt for a suspect identified in CCTV video, Thai authorities appear no closer to solving the case. No one has taken credit for the attack and Thai leaders have also denied the bombing had anything to do with international terrorism, although they provided no evidence to support this claim. And there was nothing reassuring when, a few days before ruling out international terrorist groups, prime minister and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha admonished the Thai authorities and told them to closely watch the American television crime series Blue Bloods to get “tips, ideas and insights” into the bombing case.

With no leads yet emerging, many Thais now worry that the culprits behind the bombing of the shrine will never be found. They may have reason to worry. Previous, smaller bombings in Bangkok and sites in southern Thailand often have come and gone with no arrests, conflicting statements by the authorities and muddled forensic investigations.

While last weekend the police ruled out the involvement of international terrorist groups, other Thai officials claimed that it was impossible that any locals had carried out the attack. Yet, some theories about the bombing still seem possible. Foreigners may well have been involved in the attack – prominent international terrorists have been caught in and near the city before. But Al Qaeda and ISIL are intensely hungry for publicity and would never conduct such a deadly attack anonymously.

Uighur groups are slightly harder to rule out. In early July, Thailand repatriated more than 100 Uighur migrants to China, where the government has harshly repressed the minority group. Protesters attacked the Thai consulate in Istanbul, where there is strong public support for the Uighurs. Uighur militants have been discovered in raids on terrorist-­training camps in places such as Afghanistan, and in the past five years, someone has launched a stepped-up campaign of violence in China’s Xinjiang province.

Uighurs might want to conduct a bombing in Bangkok without taking credit for it, so as not to undermine the Uighurs’ international image as an oppressed minority. Some Thai reports suggest that the man seen in the CCTV footage was using a fake Turkish passport. Still, no Uighur organisations have conducted large-scale international terrorist attacks in the past.

Shortly after the bombing, Prayuth publicly suggested that the attack might have been carried out by groups who supported the elected government that was toppled in the May 2014 coup.

Except for brief periods, including after the coup in 2006, Thailand has mostly been run by elected politicians from parties linked to the populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin’s supporters have been aggressive at times. For instance, groups of them launched violent attacks in the resort town of Pattaya in 2009.

Still, even more so than the Uighurs, the Thaksin supporters want to maintain their popularity with the Thai public, since the military will probably eventually give way to another election. Bombing a revered shrine would not help your favoured party and Thais feel especially devoted to the Erawan Shrine. In 2006, when a mentally unstable man attacked it with a hammer, a mob of bystanders beat him to death.

An even more plausible explanation is that the bombing was carried out by disaffected military officers seeking to destabilise the junta government and possibly create a reason for them to seize power.

The Thai military has a long history of seizing political power from civilian governments and military-led regimes, as well. The military and other Thai political elites also have a history of using shadowy shootings and grenade or bomb attacks to cause chaos, wipe out political rivals, or force military leaders to promote certain cliques within Thailand’s army. The military has staged at least 18 coups in the past seven decades, and is perhaps more involved in politics than any other military in the world. Duncan McCargo, an expert on Thai politics at the University of Leeds, calls it an “armed bureaucracy, which does not fight wars”.

Just before the bombing, factions inside the army had reportedly been jostling for power, as the junta decided upon the army promotion list and chose the leaders of the armed services, who are essentially the most powerful people in the country.

The most likely culprits, though, are insurgents who, for 15 years now, have conducted a string of bombings, shootings and stabbings in the three deep-southern provinces of Thailand. The insurgents fight to separate from Thailand – the three southern provinces, which are majority Muslim and share links with neighbouring Malaysia, were their own sultanate before being incorporated into mostly Buddhist Thailand in 1902. The southern battles have claimed more than 4,000 lives since 2001. The insurgents, who operate in small and independent cells, often have conducted attacks without publicly taking credit, according to Don Pathan, a long-time researcher specialising in the southern conflict. The insurgents also have no need to win over the population of Thailand, in general.

Though many Thai officials have insisted that the southern insurgents normally restrict their fight to the far south, southern militants probably have ventured out of the three southern provinces to launch attacks before. These attacks have received far less coverage in the international press than the Erawan Shrine bombing, but they also reflect the insurgents’ sophistication.

On New Year’s Eve in Bangkok in 2006, when many Thais were out in the streets celebrating, four explosions went off at almost the same time at major intersections. Before midnight, at least four more bombings had occurred throughout the city, killing three people and injuring at least forty. Many of the bombs bore a close resemblance to the types of explosives frequently used by insurgents in southern Thailand.

Then the military, which took power after the 2006 coup, initially blamed anti-government protesters for the New Year’s bombing. But over the following years, during which the authorities never arrested anyone, many Thai police came to believe the New Year’s Eve attack was carried out by southern insurgents.

Earlier this year, the insurgents may have struck again outside the south. In April, a car bomb exploded outside a shopping mall on the normally peaceful Thai resort island of Koh Samui. Seven people were hurt, and though no one was killed, the bombing ripped an enormous hole in the ground, shocked travellers and caused a massive drop in hotel bookings on the island. Once again, the army quickly tried to blame anti-government protesters. Zachary Abuza, a veteran analyst of terrorism in South East Asia who has taught at the National War College in the United States, noted that Thai authorities originally denied that southern insurgents could have perpetrated the Koh Samui bombing. Yet, Abuza notes, in recent months, the army and police have quietly made arrests in the far south, where the insurgents are based, that the police “acknowledged are linked to the Koh Samui attack”.

As the investigation into the shrine bombing continues, the government and the police have quickly adopted a pessimistic tone, possibly because they want to decrease public hopes that the perpetrators will be caught. Last weekend, the Thai police said that the man identified in the video may have already left the country. On Monday, Thai authorities admitted that most of the security cameras on the streets where the bomber might have fled were broken.

In a country already badly divided by years of contentious politics, military interventions and protests that turned deadly, the Erawan Shrine bombing may not be the unifying force that other terrorist attacks were for their societies. Instead, the conflicting theories offered by the junta about the Erawan Shrine and the rush to blame anti-government groups have only curdled whatever goodwill the junta once had. Even in the neutered Thai press, in the past two weeks there has been a firestorm of editorials questioning the army’s handling of the bomb investigation and the army’s leadership overall.

Meanwhile, the bombing will further damage an economy reeling from years of political turmoil and poor fundamentals. Thailand’s exports are shrinking, a disastrous sign for a country that was once one of the world’s export powerhouses – the country is expected to post one of the lowest growth rates in Asia in 2015. Tourism, which accounts for nearly 10 per cent of Thailand’s economic output, was already suffering, and the Erawan bombing will hurt more, especially among Chinese tourists. Of the 20 people killed at the shrine, at least five were Chinese. According to the Thai tourism ministry, the bombing has resulted in a 17 per cent fall in arrivals.

“A loss of momentum in the tourism sector, the only firm growth driver in Thailand currently” will serious undermine the Thai economy, according to ANZ economists Weiwen Ng and Glenn Maguire. Worse, with the economy suffering, the junta continuing to put off elections and Thais spooked by the army’s failure to keep them safe, the military’s rule could falter. A new round of street protests, counter-­protests and violent street chaos could erupt.

Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for South East Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.