Contradictions mount as Thai authorities hunt Bangkok bombing suspect

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 21, 2015

As the hunt for the main suspect in the Bangkok bomb attacks continues, Thai authorities are increasingly contradicting each other about the possible perpetrators. That’s par for the course, says Saksith Saiyasombut.

“He doesn’t really look Thai,” a woman was heard saying Tuesday, looking at the grainy CCTV footage showing the main suspect in Monday’s bomb attack at Bangkok’s popular Erawan Shrine that killed at least 20 people and injured about 120. Authorities are looking for a young man who was wearing a yellow t-shirt, dark shorts and dropped a suspicious backpack at the shrine before leaving the scene. On Wednesday, police released a composite sketch of the suspect, based on eyewitness reports, and announced a bounty of 1 million Baht ($28,000).

That about sums up what the Thai authorities can agree on so far. After the initial uncharacteristic hesitant response by Thai officials on who could be behind the unprecedented attack (and the subsequent failed bomb attack on Tuesday), the police and the military government seem to be slowly but steadily getting back to their usual “we said, they said”-thing, complete with open, unsubstantiated speculations, making the overall investigation seem less credible as it is being observed by a wider international audience.

Four days after the attack, officials are still in the dark about the possible motives and perpetrators, with the usual suspects getting a mention and wilder theories popping up. This hasn’t stopped Thai authorities from pressing forward with their own findings and opinions – regardless of any contradictions among themselves.

With the release of the sketch, reports cited an motocycle taxi driver who is believed to have given the suspect a lift away from the scene of the blast, who he described as somebody who didn’t “seem to be Thai” and spoke “an unfamiliar language” on his phone. Police spokesman Prawuth Thawornsiri wouldn’t confirm the description, saying that: “If the suspect disguised himself, wore a wig, put on fake nose and spoke Arabic, we wouldn’t know if he’s really [a foreigner] anyway.” Nevertheless, the arrest warrant issued a few hours later was for an unnamed “foreigner”, which is based on the sketch.

The contradictory statements started then to pile up on Thursday, starting with the National Police Chief Somyot Poompanmuang’s assessment that “at least 10 people” of a “big network” were involved in preparing it “at least one month in advance”. How he knows this, despite still not knowing who’s behind the attack, is not known.

(ANALYSIS: Transparency is essential in Bangkok bombings probe)

Regardless of the amount of suspects and the ambiguous nationality and ethnicity of the main suspect, the military junta has ruled out that the attack was carried out by an international terrorism network, which kinda makes sense since Thailand is rarely targeted by any international terrorist group, except for a few instances but never against Thais (we reported). Junta spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree then suggested an “organized crime” connection, without giving any clear motive.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Thai police requested assistance from Interpol, as confirmed by deputy national police spokesman Kissana Phathancharoen first to Reuters, whereas Thai military junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha – who appeared comparatively measured in the first two days after the attack – was quoted saying in his usual manner:

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha bristled when asked if his government, which was installed after a military coup last year, was seeking outside help. “This incident happened in Thailand. It is Thailand. Why do we want other people to come in and investigate?” the former general told reporters on Wednesday.

Thai police grapple for firm clues to Bangkok bomb suspects“, Reuters, August 19, 2015

He later went on to suggest to that police officers watch an American police procedure drama for inspiration. Whether he was being sardonic or serious is not known. That still didn’t stop his military junta deputy PM and defense minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan asking the UK and US for assistance in the investigation – but only in form of equipment, not personnel. How the Thai officials are going to use the tools without any instruction and assistance and what tools were actually requested is not known.

With the hunt ongoing and the authorities continuing to chase any clue they can find, their senior officers aren’t really sure if they’re too late, as police spokesman Lt. Gen. Prawut Thavornsiri openly wondered whether the main suspect is still in the country, while Major-General Werachon Sukondhapatipak, another military junta spokesman (mostly dealing with the foreign media), is certain that he’s still in the country.

These few examples from Thursday alone show how contradictory the statements from the police and military government are, sometimes even coming from the same branch. The root cause for this problem can be regarded as a pathological phenomenon in Thai bureaucratic culture: the compulsive need to say something – no matter if it’s substantial, truthful or none of that – in order to appear knowledgeable, proactive and in command. While in many Western countries, the police would have one or two daily press briefings, many Thai senior police officers are constantly give updates whenever they’re asked. It also doesn’t help that Thai police and military usually have a tense rivalry.

The shambolic investigation in the murder case of two British tourists on Koh Tao last year garnered a torrent of international criticism and now heightened international attention is observing the ongoing investigations of the bomb attack. The Thai authorities are collectively already guilty of one thing: being incapable of delivering a clear and consistent message.

And thus, the worst case scenario could be what Thai scholar and political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak describes:

At issue will be whether any party makes a credible claim of perpetration, or the authorities make a credible apprehension of the culprit. Without either, the latest blast may well fit the pattern of previous Bangkok-based explosions that ultimately fade into Thai oblivion due to a lack of forensic means and popular regard for the law.

Terrorist attack in Bangkok turns up heat on Thailand“, by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Nikkei Asian Review, August 19, 2015

With the Erawan Shrine already cleaned up and re-opened again within 72 hours after the blast, one can wonder if the work to find the callous attacker(s) behind Monday’s bomb attack has been thorough enough. A BBC report suggests the contrary, with reporters still finding shrapnel and ball bearings at the scene. And when correspondent Jonathan Head attempted to hand them over at the National Police headquarters down the road, he was told that it was outside the office hours…

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