August 17, 2015
By Richard S. Ehrlich – Special to The Washington Times
BANGKOK – Thai security officials sifted through the grim remains of victims and wreckage in the pre-dawn streets Tuesday, but offered no firm leads on who detonated a powerful pipe bomb targeting shoppers, tourists, religious pilgrims and rush-hour commuters in the heart of one of the city’s most popular gathering places.
In a city that has not experienced such ruthless terrorist attacks, investigators had more questions than answers.
The explosion killed at least 19 people, including foreigners, and injured 123 others in the capital’s bloodiest terrorist strike in memory. No person or group immediately claimed responsibility.
An internationally known Hindu shrine dominates the busy urban intersection where the pipe bomb was planted.
The attack poses a fresh political challenge for the authoritarian government of former Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has faced growing pressure from domestic critics and longtime allies such as the United States after seizing power in a bloodless coup last year.
“The perpetrators are cruel and heartless because they intended to take lives,” National Police Chief Somyot Poompanmoung announced in a televised broadcast early Tuesday. “Everyone knows that at 7 p.m. at the shrine there are a lot of people gathered around there – both Thais and foreign tourists – and if they plant a bomb there they know, or can assume, they will cause casualties.
“We haven’t ruled out any motive,” he said.
In Washington, the State Department said it had not determined whether any Americans were among the blast’s victims.
Bangkok was tense but calm Tuesday morning, but officials announced that more than 430 schools in the capital would be closed for the day, perhaps to ease parents’ concerns about the safety of public and private transportation.
Officials began inspecting closed-circuit television footage of the explosion, which set off a billowing fire when nearby motorcycles ignited. They also will be scrutinizing personal videos recorded by screaming pedestrians who fled in all directions and later posted their escapes online.
Rescuers removed corpses covered with white sheets from where they lay in the intersection, though some said they could retrieve only body parts. Police said the bomb was made with a pipe wrapped in cloth.
The Hindu shrine dominates the neighborhood and has long been a popular destination for tourists.
The military’s powerful Internal Security Operation Command reportedly was pursuing three possible motives: opposition to the military regime, infighting among the junta’s officials who will soon be promoted or demoted during a reshuffling, and Islamist terrorism linked to Iran and the Middle East.
“We still don’t know for sure who did this and why,” Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon told reporters. “We are not sure if it is politically motivated, but they aim to harm our economy, and we will hunt them down.”
The military has “ruled out insurgents from the deep south,” said a brief report in The Nation newspaper – a reference to a long-running clash by ethnic Muslims along the border with Malaysia with the central government in Bangkok.
Security forces tried to determine whether the location of the blast was symbolic – the Ratchaprasong intersection where the bomb was placed is the equivalent of New York’s Times Square. The site became bloodstained in March 2010 when the military crushed the last stronghold of a pro-democracy insurrection resulting in 90 deaths, mostly civilians, during nine weeks of clashes.
The intersection is flanked by some of Bangkok’s most expensive shopping malls, five-star hotels and condominiums, and is underneath a packed commuter Skytrain monorail station.
The elegant Erawan shrine, dedicated to a four-faced statue of the Hindu god Brahman, was damaged by the bomb, which was attached to a pole along its decorative iron fence.
The shrine’s casualties included some of the throngs of worshippers and tourists who squeeze into its open courtyard every day and evening to pray at the gilded Brahman and watch ornately costumed Thai women perform ritual dances. The shrine is surrounded by Thai vendors selling flowers, incense, temple icons and live sparrows trapped in bamboo cages. Superstitious customers who set the birds free expect a reward of good luck.
Thailand’s population is majority Buddhist, but the monarchy and government include Hindu deities among its official symbols and institutions. The two communities have no history of tensions.
The military is heavily involved in fighting Islamist insurgents in southern Thailand and provides intelligence and security for this Southeast Asian nation’s other major military and political problems.
The southern rebels frequently hide bombs in cars, motorcycles and cooking gas cylinders, but there has never been any public confirmation that the insurgents have been involved in attacks in Bangkok. Their targets typically are military personnel and locations.
Some see Thailand’s domestic politics as the most likely source of the attack.
The explosions were “more likely to be some anti-junta activists, although the bombing appears to be sophisticated,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. The “bombing was clearly intended for the highest possible casualties.”
Thailand’s military regime, which has ruled since the coup last year, has been hit with rising criticism even among supporters, mostly because the nation’s bustling economy has cooled considerably since the junta seized power.
Pro-democracy supporters remain angry that popularly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted in the coup and the constitution was subsequently canceled. Gen. Prayuth is crafting a new constitution that his opponents predict will consolidate his power.
Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck Shinawatra’s brother who was ousted in 2006, told his followers last week to oppose the next constitution, sparking concerns that fresh confrontations may be looming.
Hours after the explosions, Thaksin Shinawatra expressed his condolences on his official Twitter account and condemned the assault.
Problems for the regime
Some Thai analysts suspect splits may be worsening within the military and among the junta’s supporters because the regime has not solved many of this country’s woes but has succeeded in promoting Gen. Prayuth’s allies.
There have been other attacks in Thailand, but those occasional bomb blasts and suspected assassination attempts usually have been described as plots against Israeli diplomats.
In February 2012, three Iranian men were arrested shortly after setting off a series of claylike C-4 bombs in Bangkok that destroyed their rented house, damaged a taxi, blew off the legs of one of the Iranians and injured four Thai civilians.
Ironically, the entire Ratchaprasong intersection and surrounding area is one of the most heavily monitored urban crossroads on earth, with dozens of closed-circuit cameras mounted at scores of locations, installed after the bloody end of the 2010 insurrection.
Pedestrians and vehicles approaching and passing through the area can be observed and recorded from multiple angles, step-by-step, nonstop throughout the intersection and surrounding streets, through live feeds monitored on screens in a police bunker in a nearby five-star hotel.
For those injured by the blast, several well-equipped hospitals and clinics are close to the site, which police cordoned off during their investigation.
Several Thais and foreigners expressed dread that more confrontations may result.
They also predict that Thailand’s lucrative tourism industry will immediately suffer cancellations because many travelers come to Bangkok for shopping and sightseeing in and around the Ratchaprasong intersection.
Louis Vuitton’s opulent showroom, the Grand Hyatt Erawan’s plush hotel and other multinational venues near the site sustained shattered glass from the explosions.
Tourists reacted with concern.
“We didn’t think anything like this could happen in Bangkok,” Holger Siegle, a German who told The Associated Press that he and his bride had chosen Thailand for their honeymoon because it seemed safe. “Our honeymoon and our vacation will go on, but with a very unsafe feeling.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.