By Invitation

Bangkok blast erupts from poor diplomacy, transnational crime

Vulnerabilities of Thai junta government exposed by last month's Erawan Shrine bomb attack

More than three weeks after Thailand's worst bomb attack in central Bangkok claimed 20 lives and injured more than 130 people, the evidence gathered so far is offering some clarity after the initial confusion and controversy. It now appears that the blast erupted from a potent mix of Bangkok's shady role as a transit point for transnational crime networks and the junta government's excessive kowtow to China's demands.

In other words, the chickens have come home to roost.

To be sure, periodic bombings of relatively minor consequence in the greater Bangkok area are not uncommon. Business conflicts and turf wars between local bosses under both civilian and uniformed guises occasionally ended in shootings and grenade bombings in the past. Disaffected elements on both sides of the political divide have used violence in the past to try to influence the direction of the contested status quo.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

ACT OF TERROR

What sets the Aug 17 bomb attack apart from previous blasts was its scale and lethality. It went off during the evening rush hour in Bangkok's tourist and business centre at Ratchaprasong intersection, next to the famous Erawan Shrine, where Asians of all religions come to pray.

Never has Bangkok suffered such a high death toll from a deliberate blast in its central business district. This scale of carnage would be familiar in Thailand's three southernmost border provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, where a Malay-Muslim insurgency against the Thai state has claimed more than 6,500 lives since January 2004, when its upsurge turned virulent. But, until the Aug 17 blast, Bangkok has been spared so far.

Not surprisingly, all sorts of conspiracies and contending explanations have been put forward in official circles, media and social media. The leading question centred on the suspected bomber caught on security cameras: his identity, the network he belonged to and his motive.

Was it an indigenous job by disenchanted Thais? Or was it a foreign operation carried out on Thai soil by aggrieved parties from abroad? Will it happen again in a new pattern of terror previously unseen in Thailand? To answer these questions, it is instructive to look at facts on the ground, particularly the target and the timing of the bomb attack.

An operation of this magnitude - designed to inflict a high death toll - was clearly an act of terrorism. Terrorists are invariably deliberate in their actions and objective.

They acted on a Monday, the only day of the week when sidewalk vendors are prohibited by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration from selling garlands and flowers around the Erawan Shrine. The bomb was planted next to the shrine where worshippers are mostly tourists from East Asian countries, not Thais.

For any domestic player in Thai politics to undertake a bombing campaign of such a scale, it carries incalculable risks without commensurate results. It makes no sense for the government and pro-coup forces or anti-coup opponents aligned with the previous regime of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's family to kill and maim so many innocent bystanders. The anti-government groups cannot use the attack to dislodge the military regime, while the incumbent coup-appointed government certainly does not need a terrorist incident to further weaken the economy and show its failure to provide public security.

If any link to either side is found, the native perpetrators would be seen as the enemy of the state, pursued and hated by all Thais. Carrying out such an attack would only backfire on either group.

Moreover, there are other tried and tested ways to destabilise the scene, such as the use of pipe bombs and hand grenades. These weapons inflict low casualty rates, yet generate high publicity.

AN UIGHUR CONNECTION?

As more suspects and clues emerge, they increasingly point to opaque transnational crime networks that involve the smuggling of Uighurs, a Turkish-speaking minority from China's western Xinjiang province.

The discovery of dozens of fake Turkish passports at an apartment inhabited by a key suspect suggests an illicit people-smuggling business that is common in Thailand. Similar illegal migrant operations reportedly exist for other suppressed ethnic groups, such as those from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Even North Koreans have a well-travelled getaway route to Thailand for eventual sanctuary in South Korea.

These illegal human-smuggling and migration businesses thrive locally because Thailand is such an easy-going place, underpinned by poor and often corrupt law enforcement. For the most part, Thailand is a transit point and marketplace for shady transnational transactions. It has been more of a passageway than a direct target and destination. But all this has been shattered by last month's blast. It now appears that the bomb blast could be linked to the Thai government's deportation of 109 Uighur men to China in July. They were taken away to China on a chartered plane, with black hoods over their heads and each man escorted by a Chinese security officer. The fate of these Uighurs is unknown despite Beijing's assurances that they would be treated humanely.

The most credible explanation at this time is that the perpetrators of the bomb blast are Uighur sympathisers who sought to exact revenge against the Thai state for the forced repatriation.

If this is the case, then the Thai government has paid a high price for leaning too close to Beijing after the military coup in May last year. While the Thai authorities have denied the Uighur connection, the evidence so far suggests otherwise.

The military government's appeasement of China in exchange for recognition and support has proven to be misguided and short-sighted.The Thai authorities should recalibrate the country's relations with major powers.

They should also go after the culprits of the blast with the full force of the law, and clamp down on transnational crimes and people-smuggling in Thailand.

The message from Bangkok should be that Thailand does not turn its back on those who are persecuted or, worse still, send them back to a doomed fate. But, at the same time, Bangkok must not become a haven for criminal networks and a terrorist destination.

Like its neighbours in Beijing's backyard, there is no escaping the Asian power's growing influence. Thailand can remain pro-China and still cultivate close links with other major powers, such as Japan, South Korea, India and Asean. This is especially crucial as the current government in Bangkok, having come into power following a coup, lacks legitimacy, and is weak abroad. Its ensuing vulnerability led to unnecessary concessions which boomeranged on Thailand last month.

•The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2015, with the headline 'Bangkok blast erupts from poor diplomacy, transnational crime'. Print Edition | Subscribe