Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

The curious case of the Bangkok bomber

Why are the Thai authorities insisting that the Bangkok bomber, responsible for last week’s bombing in Bangkok, is a foreigner, asks Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Surely it cannot be an individual with a personal grudge who planted the pipe bomb in the Thai capital’s Hindu Erawan Temple last week. Also known as the Thao Maha Phrom Shrine, it is a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of Buddhists and Hindus who come from all over Asia to pray for good fortune.

The shrine in central Bangkok was hit by a bomb blast on 17 August that claimed the lives of at least 27 people and injured many more. A few days later, the Royal Thai Police named Mohamed Museyin as chief suspect in the bombing.

What lessons can be drawn from this dreadful terrorist act? One is that Thailand’s ruling military junta is struggling to control the ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents in the south of the country and that Muslims in the country feel alienated and sidelined politically.

The Thai military overthrew Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup on 20 May 2014, but Thailand is too cosmopolitan a country to be run by military men in uniforms behaving like mediaeval despots, and incompetent ones at that.

Uniformed or ex-military men have governed Thailand for 55 of the 83 years since the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. Yet a week after the blast the bomber is still on the run.

“We need more evidence before we can draw any conclusions,” Royal Thai Police Commissioner Somyot Poompanmoung said.

Erawan, in the heart of the central Chidlom district of the Thai capital, is a magnet for tourists. How did the terrorists get away with murder? “This operation was carried out by a big network,” the commissioner said.

Local Thai Islamist terrorists and international terrorists affiliated to such groups as the so-called Islamic State (IS) could have carried out the act. The killers obviously wanted to wreak havoc on the Thai economy and did not simply want to kill hapless tourists.

“The perpetrators intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district,” Thai Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan declared.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha concurred in a solemn ceremony commemorating the lives lost in the blast. “From this incident, it is apparent that there are active individuals or groups that harbour the intention to damage Thailand and may be pursuing political gains or other intentions by damaging the economy and tourism,” he said.

A multi-faith ceremony, including Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus, was held at the Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok on Friday to honour the dead.

A Thai forensic team was deployed in the Sathorn Road area of Bangkok. Two men, a Chinese tourist and a Thai guide, were at first suspected as possible terrorists or accomplices, but the Thai police later released them, saying they were not suspects.

A Thai “woman wearing a black shirt” and a “man in a yellow shirt” have now been declared chief suspects.

Last month more than 100 ethnic Uyghur separatists were deported from Thailand to China; the deportees had requested to be sent to Turkey, where they wanted to settle. The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority in China’s western Xingjiang Province, and it may be that there is a connection here to the Bangkok bombing.

Mohamed Museyin, the man in the yellow shirt, looked “suspiciously like” a Central Asian, commentators said. Motorbike and tuk-tuk (motorised pedicab) drivers were also questioned and one said he had given a lift to someone who looked like Mohamed Museyin.

A Thai motorcycle taxi driver said he had dropped the “man in the yellow shirt” shortly after the Erawan shrine blast. “He spoke an unfamiliar language on his cell phone during the short ride,” the driver told Thai police.

The police are also questioning staff at the Niagara Hotel, next to the motorcycle taxi rank where two drivers say they gave several lifts to a man resembling the “man in the yellow shirt.”

Thai officials believe the prime suspect, described as an unidentified “foreign” man, planted the bomb hidden in a backpack. A bounty of one million baht, or $28,000, has been offered for any information leading to an arrest.

On Friday, the bounty was raised to three million baht, but as the Weekly went to press it was widely assumed that the terrorist or terrorists had already fled the country.

The deadly device was referred to earlier as a “pipe bomb”, an improvised explosive device, but the terrorists were clearly professionals who knew what they were doing.

“The slowness of the investigation is not because the police lack capacity,” Poompanmoung told reporters in Bangkok. “We don’t have the modern equipment to support the work.”

“The Uyghur angle was personally debunked by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha,” stated the Asia Times. The influential paper added, “He [the man in the yellow shirt] did not board his flight back to Europe because of a scratch in his passport photograph — a problem that did not prevent him from entering Thailand in the first place.”

Pepe Escobar of the Asian Times also hinted that the Thai military were to blame. “The answer [to the Bangkok bomber puzzle] might lie in a shadowy game that is virtually off-limits for foreigners: the promotion lists issued this month for assorted Thai military forces,” he claimed.

The UK Independent newspaper also reminded its readers that in “February two small bombs were detonated close to the Siam Paragon Shopping Mall in Bangkok. And in April a car bomb exploded in an underground car park on the beach resort island of Koh Samui.”

Western governments have issued warnings about travel to Thailand, and especially the southern Muslim-majority provinces of Yala, Patani and Narathiwat where a low-intensity civil war is being waged by separatists from the ethnic Malay population.

The separatist insurgency in southern Thailand has thus far claimed the lives of 6,400 people, and there has been an upsurge in the conflict in recent years.

Theravāda Buddhism is practiced by some 95 per cent of the Thai population and is the main religion of Thailand’s immediate neighbours, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos as well as Sri Lanka.

Thailand has historically been known for its religious tolerance, but religious rivalry has been a major cause of civil wars in Sri Lanka and Myanmar and it has been raising its ugly head in southern Thailand.

Thailand is also no stranger to bombings of a religious nature. The Narathiwat bombings in 2005 were followed by the 2006 Hat Yai bombings in Songkhla Province, which were related to Muslim separatists in southern Thailand. On 6 May 2014 there was another spate of blasts in Hat Yai.

Bombings in Bangkok have been less pronounced, even though the 2006 Bangkok New Year blasts rocked the nation. The worry now is that any further bombings in Thailand will be associated with Islam, souring relations between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority.

The Bangkok Post, a Thai newspaper, reported that a second bomb was detonated by a Thai bomb-disposal team. Meanwhile, there is an astonishing mismatch between Thai official suspicions of Islamist terrorists, whether local or foreign, points to the reality of a deeply divided and politically unstable nation.

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