Squaring the circles: Thai police close case on Bangkok bomber hunt

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 30, 2015

Thai police are confident that they have arrested the main suspect in the deadly Erawan Shrine bombing – just in time for a certain official…

IT’S an equation with many unknown variables that the Thai police have been dealing with since August 17, when the deadly bomb attack at Bangkok’s popular Erawan Shrine killed 20 and injured over 100 people, followed the next day by a similar attempted bomb attack at Sathorn pier in which nobody was harmed.

The investigation started off slowly and the authorities were caught as much off-guard as most observers, since the scale and severity of the attack didn’t fit with any domestic groups that oppose the Thai military government. With only some grainy CCTV footage, dozens of witness accounts and many arrest warrants against unknown men, Thai authorities often contradicted themselves in their hunt for the perpetrators.

Two weeks after the bombing, the police arrested Mohammed Bilal (aka ”Adem Karadag”, the name in a fake Turkish passport he was carrying), and Yusufu Mieraili, identified as a Chinese Uighur from Xinjiang province. Despite initial reluctance, the focus was swiftly put on the Uighur angle. Members of the ethnic minority from western China often have to flee abroad from state persecution. In July the Thai military government deported about 100 Uighur refugees to China amidst international protest and in what is being widely regarded as the military junta cozying up to Beijing.

After several weeks of more contradictory police statements, from more fruitless accusations (the police implicated 17 suspects in total), suspects having already fled the country, to the Turkish embassy strongly denying having been ever been contacted by Thai police, the police suddenly turned to their first arrest Mohammed Bilal (aka Adem Karadag) as their main suspect after reviewing CCTV footage, again. Despite initially denying the allegations (his lawyer says that he came to Thailand days after the bomb attack), it was reported that both he and Mieraili confessed to involvement, with the former being the one who planted the bomb at the shrine.

Following the weekend, as both prime suspects have been paraded around in public crime re-enactments (again!), Thai national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung concluded with certainty on Monday that Mohammed Bilal is the main suspect behind the deadly Bangkok bombing of August 17, 2015. As for the motives, Thai police said this:

“This case is conclusive,” said Royal Thai Police commissioner-general Somyot Poompanmoung. “The perpetrators are part of a human smuggling network” in retribution for the Thai government’s crackdown on a human trafficking network.

However, Somyot and other top officials clarified the group was likely hired by others and links to vested political interests could not be ruled out. Authorities have given few clues about other political motivations for the attack, however outside analysts have suggested it could be linked to the country’s internal political divisions.

Detonators, ball bearings and other evidence recovered from the debris around the shrine and an alleged second bombing attack at a pier match materials found in two raided apartments, police told reporters at a Monday briefing.

Thai Police: Foreign Suspects Confess to Bombings“, Voice of America, September 28, 2015

Not only are Thai authorities blaming human traffickers for the attack, but are also introducing a domestic angle by implicating a militant member of the red shirts, the group aligned with the former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, both toppled in military coups in 2006 and 2014, respectively.

Min Buri is also where a bomb exploded in 2014 during the height of anti-government street protests, killing two men transporting it by motorcycle. Police said that bomb was partly made by Yongyuth Pobkaew, who was previously given a suspended, one-year sentence for a 2010 bombing which killed four people northwest of Bangkok in Nonthaburi province.

Thai authorities have alleged a radical cell of the Redshirt movement was behind both incidents. Police said Yongyuth purchased materials used for the Erawan Shrine bombing. A warrant for his arrest was issued on Friday but police said his whereabouts were unknown. (…)

Speaking at today’s televised press conference, police chief Somyot also told reporters that domestic Thai politics could not be ruled out as a motive. “We cannot rule out politics,” he said. “We are not falsely accusing anyone here. My words are based on evidence.”

Police Link Bomb Attack to Uighurs, Deep South and Thai Politics“, Khaosod English, September 28, 2015

Evidence that we still have yet to see, as Somyot is about to retire later this week as National Police Chief, handing over the job to his successor Pol.-Gen. Chakthip Chaijinda (rumored to have been chosen by the even-more-hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan).

Thai police are patting themselves on the back – since they are also cashing 3m Thai Baht ($84,000) in reward money meant for the public following the arrest of Karadag –  just days before their chief’s retirement, considering the case to be solved while still leaving lingering doubts unanswered. The authorities have consistently avoided calling the deadly attack an act of terrorism, partly so as not to scare away even more tourists, as many foreign nationals are among the victims. And whether or not criminals – who mostly operate well hidden from the public – were behind the bombings as a direct “revenge” on the military government’s crackdown on human traffickers (triggered by a discovery of a mass grave earlier this year) also remains to be seen.

In a country under military rule and a notoriously corrupt police force, the investigation of the worst attack in the history of Bangkok was largely undermined by constant contradictions being spouted and the lack of transparency displayed by the authorities (and then harrying the media for highlighting their discrepancies). Public confidence is unlikely to increase after the latest developments, as the Thai police are seemingly trying to square the circle with their suspicion on the perpetrators behind the bomb attack. The equation remains with many variables, waiting to be resolved.