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Bangkok bombers targeted maximum casualties: police

20 dead and more than 120 injured after massive blast outside Erawan shrine that left body parts scattered across the street.
Thai rescue workers transport an injured person after a bomb exploded outside a religious shrine in central Bangkok. Pornchai Kittiwongsakul / AFP Photo
Thai rescue workers transport an injured person after a bomb exploded outside a religious shrine in central Bangkok. Pornchai Kittiwongsakul / AFP Photo

BANGKOK // Bombers who struck at a busy Bangkok intesection were aiming for maximum casualties, Thailand’s police chief said as the confirmed toll rose to 20 dead and 123 injured.

The bomb exploded at a popular shrine in central Bangkok during evening rush hour on Monday, leaving body parts strewn across the streets of a area full of five-star hotels and upscale shopping malls.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the blast. The Thai capital has been relatively peaceful since a military coup ousted a civilian government in May last year after several months of sometimes violent political protests against the previous government.

The area around Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine is filled with hundreds of tourists, office workers and shoppers at any given time. The bomb was made from a pipe wrapped in cloth and contained three kilogrammes of TNT, Thai media reported, citing police.

“Whoever planted this bomb is cruel and aimed to kill,” said national police chief Somyot Poompummuang. “Planting a bomb there means they want to see a lot of people dead.”

The shrine is at a major intersection that was the centre of many contentious political demonstrations in recent years – raising questions about whether the bombing was politically linked. But police said it was too soon to determine the attack’s motive.

Security video showed a powerful flash as the bomb exploded at around 7 pm.

“I heard a very loud bang, it made the whole building shake so I ran outside to see what had happened,” said Panupan Chansing, 20, a hotel worker at the nearby Grand Hyatt Erawan.

“I saw bodies lying on the ground and I saw vehicles on fire. I feel very sad and sorry that this has happened to Thai people... I’m scared.”

Police confirmed 19 people were killed, including 10 Thais, one Chinese and one Filipino citizen, though China’s official Xinhua news agency said two Chinese nationals had died. The nationalities of the other people who died were not immediately clear.

More than 120 people were injured, including citizens of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, according to their governments.

“We still don’t know for sure who did this and why,” said deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwon. “We are not sure if it is politically motivated, but they aim to harm our economy and we will hunt them down.”

Anusit Kunakorn, secretary of the National Security Council, said prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who orchestrated the May 2014 coup, was closely monitoring the situation.

Although Bangkok has seen a period of relative calm since last year’s coup, there has been some tension in recent months, with the junta making clear that it may not hold elections until 2017 and wants a constitution that will allow some type of emergency rule to take the place of an elected government.

Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and fled the country to avoid a corruption conviction, last week posted a message on YouTube urging his followers to reject the draft constitution because he said it was undemocratic. The draft charter is supposed to be voted on next month by a special National Reform Council. If it passes, it is supposed to go to a public referendum around January.

Another source of recent tension is the annual military promotion list, with the junta’s top two leaders – Prime Minister Prayuth and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit – widely believed to be supporting different candidates. The reshuffle, which comes into effect in September, has traditionally been a source of unrest, as different cliques in the army, usually defined by their graduating class in the military academy, seek the most important posts to consolidate their power.

While bombings are rare in Bangkok, they are more common in southern Thailand, where a Muslim separatist have waged an insurgency for more than decade. Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, but the three southern provinces where the insurgency has flared are Muslim majority.

The last major bombings in Bangkok occurred on New Year’s Eve at the end of 2006, when a series of bombs at celebrations around the capiral killed at least three people and wounded dozens. Those bombings occurred just three months after the coup that ousted Thaksin, and there was speculation that his supporters carried out the attacks in revenge. However, the bombings were never solved.

The 2006 coup set off a battle for power among Thaksin’s supporters and opponents, sometimes in the form of violent protests.

Protesters from both sides sometimes faced armed attacks by unknown groups, with more than 90 people killed in 2010 during pro-Thaksin demonstrations that were quashed by the army. The focus of the 2010 protests was the same intersection where Monday’s blast took place, a bustling area in the heart of Bangkok’s main shopping district. Several five-star hotels are nearby.

In March this year, several arrests were made in connection with a grenade that was tossed at Bangkok’s Criminal Court. Those detained were apparently sympathisers of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement. Critics of the current military government say some of the bombings may have been carried out by the junta to justify its continued suppression of basic rights and liberties. The government denied that.

In April, a car bomb exploded at a shopping mall on the resort island of Samui, injuring seven people. The motive was unclear, though the government suggested it was linked to politics.

The Erawan shrine is dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma, but is extremely popular among Thailand’s Buddhists as well as Chinese tourists. Throngs of tourists come there to pray at all hours, lighting incense and offering flowers purchased from rows of stalls set up on the pavement along the shrine. The site is a hubbub of activity, with quiet worshippers sometimes flanked by Thai dancers hired by those seeking good fortune, while groups of tourists shuffle in and out.

In March 2006, the shrine was vandalised by a man who smashed the statue of the four-headed Brahma with a hammer. The man, believed to be mentally ill, was lynched by bystanders. A new Brahma statue was installed at the shrine within months, and was not damaged in Monday’s blast.

Brahma is the first god in the Hindu trinity and is said to be the creator of the universe. The other two gods are Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. Although Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, it has enormous Hindu influence on its religious practices and language.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse

Updated: August 17, 2015 04:00 AM

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