By Ashley Stipek
The recent bombing at Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine undermines Thailand’s reputation for peace and safety. A failure by Thai authorities to successfully apprehend those responsible may raise deeper concerns about domestic stability.
On August 17, a bomb exploded at the popular Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand. Twenty-five people were killed and 125 were injured, including Chinese, British, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean nationals. A destination for tourists and Thai nationals, the shrine was busy when the suspect left a backpack stuffed with a 3-kilogram pipe bomb. Authorities had focused on a man in a yellow shirt seen on CCTV footage prior to the blast, whom they described as foreign. On August 29, Thai authorities arrested a different man in connection to the bombing. Police found bomb-making materials and passports in his apartment, which some sources report as Turkish. Thai police insist that there is no connection to international terrorism, going so far as saying, "It's a personal feud." The bombing is extremely unusual for Thailand, which has experienced few such attacks. There has been a small but sustained separatist campaign in the southern Malay states, but they have contained their attacks to the disputed region. An attack on this scale has never occurred in Thailand, and authorities tend to believe that the country's Buddhist religion minimizes any threat of violence.
Police were not prepared for the immediate aftermath of the attack. The scene was not sealed off for hours and was rapidly cleaned up (rather than being left for forensic work). The motives behind the attack remain unknown. Despite Thailand's denials of the suggestion, there is still a possible link to international jihadis. Disgruntled Chinese Uighur minorities are another possibility. Thailand recently deported some members of this Turkic minority group back to China, where they face persecution. The suspects seem to have planned the bombing for maximum impact and chosen a target with deep symbolic significance to the Thai people. Additionally, the shrine's tourist status meant that the victims would cross national boundaries, increasing the international profile of the attack. With many details and motives still unknown, the arrest of a new suspect and the fact that the primary suspect remains at large indicate that the attack was well-planned and probably not the work of a single individual.
Even with one suspect in custody, the motives and background of the attackers remain unknown. In order to maintain public confidence, Thailand will have to step up its internal security capabilities, focusing less on the stability of military rule and more on the safety of its people. The impact on Thailand’s reputation as a safe destination for tourism may be significant. This is a primary concern for the government, as seen in the cleaning up and reopening of the shrine just two days after the attack. If southern separatists or Uighur Muslims are implicated in the attack, there might be a backlash against those communities from the Thai population, as well as a tough crackdown from the government. Whatever the motive, this bombing has shaken the image of Thailand as a peaceful country protected by its Buddhist faith.
Ashley Stipek is a Contributor to Parabellum.