Bangkok bombings: An internal conspiracy or external terror?

Any bomb blast in the city would severely dent the economy, which thrives on tourism, and this would not go in favour of the military junta.

 |  5-minute read |   20-08-2015
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Shattering of peace in the otherwise peaceful “land of smiles” in Thailand has provoked a bizarre range of theories on the possible motivation of the Bangkok bomber/s. The nation is debating on whether the perpetrators are "foreigners" or "locals" as they analyse the various factors that could have led to this sinister attack.

If the mainstream English media was pointing towards the Uighurs one day, the next day, it was busy playing it down.

While the Thai government has still not termed the incident as an “act of terrorism,” the very first press conference of the Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha indicated that there could be “individuals or groups” who may be “pursuing political gain or other intentions by damaging the economy and tourism”. Use of the term “political gain” indicated that investigations are looking at internal factors, while the phrase “intent of damaging the economy and tourism” suggested a foreign agenda.

Also read: Why Bangkok blast may not be a terrorist attack

The immediate reaction of most people was suggesting linkages with the separatist movement in its restive south. The historical Malay Patani Region, which is made up of the three southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, borders Malaysia, and they are Muslim-majority provinces in a country where the dominant religion is Buddhism.

Four soldiers had died in a recent roadside attack in south Thailand in June this year. Insurgents in the region are leading a secessionist movement, and since 2004, nearly 5,000 people have died as a result of the insurgency in southern Thailand. However, historically, these insurgents have concentrated their attacks in southern Malaysia with an aim to extend their writ in the region, rather than launch attacks in Bangkok or other parts of Thailand.

An immediate second suspect was the “red shirt” versus “yellow shirt” schism, with sympathisers of the ruling establishment pointing towards the now ousted “red shirt”. Two prime ministers of Thailand — the now exiled Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra have already been ousted. While Thaksin was ousted by the military junta in 2006 when he was abroad, his sister was removed in 2014 by another military coup. In recent days, there have been attempts to strip Thaksin of his Royal Thai Police rank, and yellow shirt sympathisers, who never miss an opportunity to attack Thaksin, are pointing towards this development as a possible reason for a counter-attack on the government. However, Thaksin, who has been out of Thailand ever since his ouster, has been quick to condemn the blasts.

Political intrigue within the government is also being touted as another possible motivation for the attack. A new army chief is to be appointed, and a significant reshuffle is being effected within the government. Local newspapers were already mentioning about some players who would lose out in the coming days. The prime minister’s own brother Gen Preecha Chan-o-cha is tipped for a significant post, either in the army or within the government. It is in this light that the prime minister’s statement that some individuals or groups may be “pursuing political gain” is being interpreted. But is it a significant reason to provoke an attack, is difficult to fathom.

A fourth motivation, which is closely related to the earlier one, is that the military junta could benefit from such an attack, and use this opportunity to prolong its rule. Though elections are being planned, it is unlikely that direct elections will be held in the near future, since the yellow shirts, who support the government do not feel comfortable in the numbers game. On the other hand, any bomb blast in Bangkok would severely dent the economy, which thrives on tourism, and this would not go in favour of the military junta.

Another factor where both the internal and external factors coalesce is the issue of the minority Uighur people from China who come from the Xinjiang region in western China. In early July, a hundred Uighurs were repatriated from Thailand to China, despite fierce criticism that they may face retaliation. This move met with condemnation from the United States, and the prime minister himself sought to explain the issue. Thailand justified its response citing a request from China to repatriate all Uighurs, but added that “not all” had been repatriated. Nearly 170 Uighurs were sent to Turkey since they were Turkish citizens, while another 100 were sent back to China, while the citizenship of another 50 is being verified. The fact that the Erawan Temple, where the blast took place on Monday is frequented by Chinese tourists, and a large number of those killed and injured were Chinese is being considered significant. However, the Thai government now thinks that it is unlikely that Chinese tourists were a target.

A final motive is being attributed to religious violence perpetrated by the Islamic State (ISIS) or other groups. While neighbouring Myanmar and Malaysia are facing issues related to religious extremism, Thailand has largely been immune to such developments (barring southern Thailand). Maynmar is facing a Buddhist-Muslim issue over the status of Rohingyas, and they are routinely repatriated from Thailand to Myanmar. However, this theory too does not have many takers.

The lack of any "claims" by a terror group is also being cited as an indicator that the Bangkok bombings are unlikely to be the handiwork of a global terrorist outfit.

In 2012, shortly after the Thailand flood, a bomb explosion in Bangkok had rocked the city. On that occasion, Thai authorities had described it as a botched attempt by Iranian nationals to assassinate Israeli diplomats. The incident occurred in conjunction with attacks on Israeli diplomats in Georgia and India. However, this time, there has been no such indication. This time, there have been no such credible explanations.

Between internal and external factors lie a wide range of possible motives that are being debated both by the Thai media and public. Arguments in favour of these motives are regularly being discounted by counter-arguments, and citizens are perplexed by this bizarre and macabre turn of events.

Thai citizens have never seen anything like this before. However, most subscribe to the theory that the attack is targeted at weakening their economy — an opinion that has been reinforced by the decline in stock market indices and a decline in the Thai baht.

The government has called the temple bombing as its “worst ever attack.” The country is now looking for answers.

Writer

Bajinder Pal Singh Bajinder Pal Singh

He is a journalist based in Thailand, who specialises in south and southeast Asia. His interests include science, environment and education, and their interface with media.

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