News analysis

Bangkok still searching for answers to bomb blast

A tent is seen around the Erawan shrine on Aug 26 as Thai craftsmen carry out repairs on the statue of Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of creation, which was damaged in the Aug 17, 2015, bomb attack on Aug 17, 2015.
A tent is seen around the Erawan shrine on Aug 26 as Thai craftsmen carry out repairs on the statue of Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of creation, which was damaged in the Aug 17, 2015, bomb attack on Aug 17, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

Concerned over effect on tourism, police play down talk of international terrorist link

As news of the powerful bomb blast in downtown Bangkok broke over local television on the night of Aug 17, a small group of villagers in Phayao province, some 700km away in northern Thailand, reacted with concern - but not alarm.

"It's another bomb," said Mr Charoen Boontha, deputy head of the village of Huay Khao Kam, before he went back to enjoying his Mekong whisky after a hard day's work constructing a house.

For Thais far away from the site, a bomb is hardly news. Bangkok and other cities have been hit by bombs before, even though they were of far lower intensity, and there are almost daily news of improvised explosive devices killing soldiers and civilians in the southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.

The blast at the Erawan Shrine, however, was not just another bomb - it was the most intense in memory, killing 20 and injuring over 100. Twelve of those killed were foreigners, including from Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Britain, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The attack also had a more ominous undertone: No group has claimed responsibility and no new information has come to light.

Some analysts say there is a danger of the incident fading into obscurity - nobody was identified or arrested for the string of nine bombs that went off in Bangkok on Dec 31, 2006, killing two people.

Yesterday, police spokesman Lieutenant-General Prawut Thavornsiri told reporters that they were checking arrivals of Turkish nationals in Thailand up to two weeks before the blast - and have not ruled out any possibilities as to the perpetrators.

But he added: "We are not focused on the nationality but the individual."

Last month, Thailand deported more than 100 Uighurs to China, sparking condemnation by many Turks who see themselves as sharing a common background with the Muslim minority group. Some security analysts have raised the possibility that the blast may have been in retaliation for Thailand's move.

The Turkish Embassy in Bangkok yesterday said it "stands strongly against all kinds of terrorist acts, regardless of its source, origin and motive". In a statement, it added that it had expressed its readiness to cooperate with the Thai authorities amid what it called "speculative" reports that Turkish citizens may have been involved in the blast.

The evidence thus far appears to hinge on closed-circuit television footage of an unidentified man leaving his backpack behind at the shrine. Cabbies and motorcyclists who transported him have said they took him to be a foreigner.

Thai police said there is no doubt the man - who could be part of a "big network" - planted the bomb. They have offered a hefty reward for information leading to his arrest. But they also admitted that their investigations are hampered by a lack of modern equipment.

Just over a week after the blast, life in Bangkok has returned to normal, though there have been some bomb scares. In the immediate vicinity of the Erawan Shrine, there is still an air of nervousness and gloom.

 Mr Somphong Lek, 46, a souvenir seller in front of the Big C department store about 100m up the road from the shrine, said his income had dropped by an estimated 70 per cent since the bomb, as people are avoiding the usually busy intersection.

  Amid the apparent lack of progress in the investigation, police called senior Thai journalists for a meeting on Wednesday, where Lt-Gen Prawut played down speculation of an external element to the attack.

He said: "Admitting it (was international terrorism) means the country has become a battlefield and a target. How could a tourist-destination country survive?"

 Mr Nopporn Wong-anan, a deputy editor of the Bangkok Post who was at the meeting, wrote yesterday that the police remarks "worry me that we will never get an honest answer over the actual motive for the bombing".

"Constrained by little evidence and limited tools, police must be open and honest," he said. "Families and friends of the deceased and the wounded deserve an answer."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2015, with the headline 'News analysis Bangkok still searching for answers to bomb blast'. Print Edition | Subscribe