After deadly Bangkok bomb blast, questions arise about culprits, motives

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 18, 2015

A screencap of CCTV footage shows the moment of explosion at the Erawan Shrine in Central Bangkok. The blast, which authorities say was caused by a bomb, has claimed at 19 lives and injured around 80 people. (Pic.: Screenshot/Nation Channel)
A still from CCTV footage shows the moment of explosion at the Erawan Shrine in Central Bangkok on August 17, 2015. The blast, which authorities say was caused by a bomb, has claimed at least 22 lives and injured around 120 people. Pic: Screenshot/Nation Channel.

After the deadly bomb attack in central Bangkok claimed at least 22 lives Monday evening, questions remain about who carried out the attack and why? Saksith Saiyasombut puts the questions into context.

It was at almost 7pm when a huge blast rocked the busy Ratchaprasong intersection in central Bangkok in the middle of rush hour. Moments later, a horrifying scene of carnage, injured people and bodies revealed itself in front of the Erawan Shrine, a Hindu religious sanctum popular with both Buddhist Thais and foreign tourists.

In the initial confusion over whether it was a targeted explosion or an accidental blast – slightly hampered by the language barrier since both the words for ‘bomb’ and ‘blast’ or ‘explosion’ are the same in Thai (“ระเบิด”) – the authorities quickly closed off the scene to commence their investigation. One hour after the blast, a spokesman for the national police stated that the explosion was caused by an “improvised explosive device” (IED), which was later confirmed by national police chief Somyot Poompanmuang to be a “pipe bomb”. Two more explosive devices were found in very close proximity to the scene and were defused by police bomb disposal experts.

Latest official figures as of writing report that 22 people have been killed, 123 people have been injured.

(READ MORE: Bangkok blast: Thai authorities hunt male ‘suspect’)

As no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Thai authorities themselves have been hesitant to point the blame in any direction. During a televised address late Monday night, a spokesmen for the Thai military government read out a statement expressing “deep concern” for the victims and their families, while emphasizing that it is “too early to speculate which group may have been responsible for this crime but authorities are following possible leads”.

However, at roughly the same time, the army’s Internal Security Operation Command openly speculated on possible motives for the attack (“political conflict, state official reshuffle, and international terrorism”) without providing any substantial information that supports their assessment. It also reportedly ruled out insurgents from the Deep South.

Defense Minister and deputy junta leader Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan told Reuters that the perpetrators “intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district,” while his spokesman got a bit carried away…

But Defence spokesman Kongcheep Tantrawanich said later the bombing was “the work of those who have lost political interests and want to destroy the ‘happy time’ of Thai people. It’s an attempt to ruin Thailand’s tourism image and cause damage to the country’s business sector.”

19 killed, 123 hurt as bomb blast rocks Bangkok tourist attraction“, Bangkok Post, August 17, 2015

With many details still murky at best, much speculation has arisen in the aftermath of the bomb attack. We attempt to put these claims into context and analyze the likelihood of each scenario.

Option 1: Anti-junta activists? Highly unlikely, because…

…it would do their cause more harm than good.

Ultra-nationalists and supporters of the Thai military government like to point their fingers at the red shirt supporters of the ousted government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for any disturbances and incidents that cause unrest.

Since the hostile takeover of power by the Thai military on May 22, 2014, there have been two explosions in Bangkok: one just down the road from Monday’s blast in front of the Siam Paragon mall on February 2, 2015 and a grenade blast at the Criminal Court a month later on March 7, 2015. Both incidents caused minimal damage (only two were slightly injured in the Siam Paragon incident). Another blast occurred on Koh Samui in April after a car exploded in the underground parking garage of a mall after closing time. Authorities have been quick to point the finger at anti-junta activists, but have so far failed to apprehend suspects in some cases, and make a solid connection in all cases.

(READ MORE: Bomb explosion in central Bangkok kills at least 22 – as it happened)

Also since the coup, the military junta keeps a tight lid on any possible display of opposition and dissent, as protests have been curtailed and activists arrested, including groups unaffiliated with any political factions. Furthermore, mainstream media and internet are being heavily monitored.

While targeted grenade blasts (some of them deadly) have occurred at political rallies on both sides in the past, a bomb attack on this scale, with casualties being coldly accepted as part of the plan, would be absolutely out of character for any political protest groups and thus highly unlikely.

Option 2: Muslim separatist insurgents from Southern Thailand? Unlikely, because…

…the separatists hardly operate outside of the south. And just because foreign media has raised this issue before any Thai outlet did, doesn’t mean it has any more or less credence.

(WATCH: WATCH: The moment the Bangkok bomb exploded)

The ongoing conflict in the southernmost Thai provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat are often overlooked and underreported in Bangkok. However, the sad reality is that the separatist insurgency has been going on for over a decade now and claimed thousands of lives on both sides, on nearly a daily basis.

However, the conflict has never spread out of the region – let alone reached the capital – as Southeast Asia security expert Zachary Abuza explains:

The conflict remains dominated by conservative Sha’afi clerics, who see themselves as the guardians of traditional Malay culture, and a bulwark against Thai colonialism and cultural influence. Thai officials are frustrated that the 100-year project to assimilate the Malays has failed, unlike every other minority group. (…)

Despite concerns that the insurgents could reach out to transnational groups, such as the Islamic State, to date they have remained inwardly focused. Thai authorities have expressed concern about the influence of the Islamic State, including after recent arrests in Malaysia, but the concerns are driven more by ignorance than reality.

The Smoldering Thai Insurgency“, by Zachary Abuza, Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, June 29, 2015

And then there’s this:

“This does not match with incidents in southern Thailand. The type of bomb used is also not in keeping with the south,” Royal Thai Army chief and deputy defence minister General Udomdej Sitabutr said in a televised interview.

Bangkok bombing ‘does not match’ insurgent tactics in Thai south – army“, Reuters, August 18, 2015

As mentioned above, the ICOC “ruled out insurgents from the deep South” Monday, the Nation reported.

Unless there’s a change in tactics and a claim has been made by any of the insurgent groups, the likelihood that they carried out Monday’s attack remains low at this point.

Option 3: Who else? Well…

This is probably the most theoretical territory and thus also the most dangerous as pure speculation has thrown around a lot of names, groups and factions. Many of the theories being thrown around in the vast space of the internet are incidental or anecdotal at best and should be – until any further solid confirmation pointing into any of these directions – taken with a huge grain of salt.

Nevertheless, whoever made carried out these attacks has played into the hands of the hawkish Thai military government, regardless of the intentions. It potentially delivers them the justification for harsher security measures or, even worse, a reason to somehow remain even more of an influential power stakeholder in the near distant future, thanks to political changes being undertaken since the coup.

What we can say for certain is…

…that we don’t know anything about the perpetrators yet! But – as the above is subject to change once we do know more – what can also be said for certain is that the attack, the way it has been carried with the aim of causing the most damage possible, is unprecedented for the city of Bangkok and, with possible suspects and motives being still highly elusive, is serving the very definition of terrorism: causing chaos and intimidating uncertainty in an already tense political situation.

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