News analysis

Bangkok blast could be game-changer for Thai security

Thailand's national police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri (left) displaying a picture of suspect Wanna Suansant yesterday, after bomb-related materials were found in a flat she had rented. (Above) A police arrest warrant handout of a sketch of an unide
(Above) A police arrest warrant handout of a sketch of an unidentified suspect believed to be linked to the Erawan shrine blast.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Thailand's national police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri (left) displaying a picture of suspect Wanna Suansant yesterday, after bomb-related materials were found in a flat she had rented. (Above) A police arrest warrant handout of a sketch of an unide
Thailand's national police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri (above) displaying a picture of suspect Wanna Suansant yesterday, after bomb-related materials were found in a flat she had rented. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

As the police hunt for a Thai woman and at least two foreigners reveals the scale of the network thought to be behind the Aug 17 bomb that killed 20 people, security analysts say this is a game-changer for Thailand.

But the jigsaw that is slowly taking shape still misses one critical piece: If the network is a Uighur smuggling syndicate, as Thai police have said, why did it bomb a civilian target in a high-profile public place, attracting the focus and resources of Thailand's security forces by inflicting certain foreign casualties?

"It is clear that (the network) was preparing for future attacks,"

Dr Zachary Abuza, an independent expert on South-east Asian political and security issues, said in an interview. "But if it was involved in organised crime, the question arises, where is the profit motive? A soft target like (the Erawan shrine, site of the Aug 17 bomb) has no profit motive."

That more strikes were planned is obvious from the amount of bomb materials found in the rented rooms raided last Saturday in Bangkok. More bomb-related evidence was found on Sunday, in another flat in the same locality that is also known, analysts say, to be a staging ground for Uighurs escaping China and travelling to Turkey and Malaysia.

Thai police released a picture of a woman, identified as Wanna Suansant, who had rented the flat.

The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China. Beijing has identified Uighurs as a threat to national security, and last year alone executed at least 21 for alleged terrorist acts.

"This is a case in which human smuggling is overlapping with terrorism," Singapore-based security expert Rohan Gunaratna, author of a book on terrorism in Thailand, told The Straits Times.

Thai officials are not ruling out any motive, and refuse to name any groups.

But if there is a connection to the Uighur issue, it also raises questions about the Thai security apparatus' understanding of the ramifications of actions like the deportation of Uighurs to China in July.

Security analysts lean towards the theory that the Aug 17 bomb was a revenge attack.

"The Thai military understands little about the difference between militant groups and ideologies,"

Dr Abuza said. "The junta had no understanding of the potential for international blowback."

In the case of the Aug 17 attack, in which 14 foreigners were killed, it may have been even worse. A second bomb nudged into the water near a pier by the Chao Phraya river exploded harmlessly the next day. Some security analysts say it could have been intended for a second strike the same evening but, for some reason, the bomber wanted to get rid of it.

Unlike Indonesia, Thailand until last month had managed to avoid major bomb attacks of the kind that occurred on Aug 17. Tip-offs, good ground intelligence and luck had aborted several potentially huge attacks.

In March 1994, a van came within some 300m of the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, but collided with a motorcycle taxi. The van driver fled. Police found 1,000kg of fertiliser, two oil containers, a battery, explosives and switches to set off what would have been a massive bomb. The bomb attempt was blamed on the Lebanon-based Shi'a militant group Hizbollah.

In January 2012, a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate and urea was found in a warehouse on the outskirts of Bangkok. Officials were led to the place by a Lebanese man named Atris Hussein - thought to be a Hizbollah operative - travelling on a Swedish passport and arrested at Suvarnabhumi Airport on a tip-off from Israeli intelligence.

The explosives were to be shipped out of the country, Thai officials said.

A huge explosion in 2012 in a rented house in a quiet residential area off upper Sukhumvit's Soi 71 blew out windows and showered the stunned neighbourhood with debris. As three people emerged, one threw a small bomb at police, which hit a lamp-post and bounced back, blowing off one of his legs and mangling the other, which had to be amputated.

All three - Iranians said to have been planning attacks on Israeli diplomats - are in jail.

Unlike Indonesia, Thailand until last month had managed to avoid major bomb attacks of the kind that occurred on Aug 17. Tip-offs, good ground intelligence and luck had aborted several potentially huge attacks. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2015, with the headline 'News analysis Bangkok blast could be game-changer for Thai security'. Print Edition | Subscribe