News analysis

Bomb probe a challenge in visitor haven

Thai soldiers patrolling the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok yesterday. Last Monday's bomb blast killed 20 people, including a Singaporean.
Thai soldiers patrolling the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok yesterday. Last Monday's bomb blast killed 20 people, including a Singaporean.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Relaxed visa regime, corruption in Thailand make it easy for criminals to evade attention

Almost one week after Bangkok's worst terrorist attack, the police gathered hundreds of security staff in public, all kitted with weaponry, to assure visitors that the capital was still safe.

Despite the show of force, national police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang did not sound confident yesterday morning when talking about the investigation into the Erawan Shrine bombing that left 20 people dead last Monday.

The investigation was being slowed by a lack of equipment, he told reporters. "We need luck," he said. "If the police are lucky, we can arrest them. But if police are not lucky, they can escape."

The remark underscores one of the major challenges facing investigators. By and large, visitors enter and leave the country easily. Thailand, with its sun-kissed beaches, service-oriented culture, good communications infrastructure and relaxed visa regime, attracts both tourists and criminals alike.

Corruption makes it easy for both local and foreign criminals to evade official attention.

A TOUGH CASE

We need luck... If the police are lucky, we can arrest them. But if police are not lucky, they can escape.

NATIONAL POLICE CHIEF SOMYOT PUMPANMUANG, on the investigations into the Bangkok bombing

British defence publisher IHS Jane's security analyst Anthony Davis says: "There is a good chance of being able to buy your way into anonymity, or if things go wrong and you are exposed - to be warned in advance."

As a result, a whole gamut of foreign criminal networks - including organised crime group the Yakuza, the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, West Africans, gangs from the Indian subcontinent - engage in various illicit activities here.

But international terrorists cannot count on a safe haven in the country, given the close cooperation between Thai, Western and regional counter-terrorism agencies, Mr Davis says. In 2003, Thai police, working with the United States' Central Intelligence Agency, arrested Indonesian cleric Hambali, a leader of militant group Jemaah Islamiah who was said to have masterminded the Bali bombings the year before.

In 2012, Thailand detained a Hizbollah suspect hours after a US warning on possible attacks on Israeli targets in Bangkok.

This year, a fugitive Sikh terrorist was arrested in the Chon Buri province and deported to India.

Still, Thailand's counter-terrorism capacity continues to lag on several fronts, according to the latest country report on terrorism released by the US State Department in April.

While law enforcement units showed "some capacity" to detect and respond to terrorist incidents, "semi-annual reshuffles of senior ranks of government and security officials, and shifts directed by the post-coup government, hampered continuity in leadership", it said.

"Inter-agency cooperation and coordination is sporadic, information sharing is limited, and the delineation of duties between law enforcement and military units with counter-terrorism responsibilities is unclear."

Muddying the picture further is Thailand's "active market in fraudulent documents", said the report. Thus, while Thai police have reportedly obtained a copy of the alleged bomber's passport - and used it to question people who may have come into contact with him - the trail may lead to a dead end.

The Thai authorities, stung by criticism of their attempts to downplay the international connections behind last Monday's blast, have now tuned down their comments about the investigation.

Yet, international scrutiny is intense because 14 foreigners - including one Singaporean woman - were killed.

In the absence of timely, credible updates, several local and international media outlets have turned sleuths, tracking down people who have been interviewed by the police and even publishing the name of a potential suspect. The latter has been denied by the Thai police.

Terrorism academic Kritdikorn Wongswangpanich warns against putting unreasonable expectations on a quick outcome. The US, he points out, took 10 years to hunt down Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

"What I fear," he says, "is that the police will think they need to find a bomber no matter what, (and pin this on) a scapegoat."

His scenario would compound a tragedy with a grave injustice.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2015, with the headline 'Bomb probe a challenge in visitor haven'. Print Edition | Subscribe