BANGKOK — In the horrific wake of last night’s devastating bomb attack, the need and rush to assign blame in the absence of reliable information has proven a toxic mix for a Thai media too willing to set aside due diligence and cast its own net of suspicion.
One vector of emergent blame has painted the attack as retribution for Thailand’s decision in July to deport more than 90 Uighur refugees back to China, a widely condemned move which prompted the sacking of Thailand’s diplomatic mission in Istanbul.
A report on Daily News, one of the largest-circulated newspapers in Thailand, quoted unnamed police officers saying that “Uighur groups” were behind yesterday’s blast at the popular Erawan Shrine in downtown Bangkok. The bomb killed at least 20 people and injured more than 180.
The Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic group in the far west of China that have at times violently resisted what they describe as oppression by ethnic Han Chinese. China brands them terrorists, and Thailand’s decision to deport them was panned as caving to pressure from Beijing.
However they have never exported their attacks, which usually involve lone agents in low-tech assaults of civilians, often with no more than a knife.
While top officials of the Thai government say it is too early to blame Monday night’s deadly bombing on any transnational terror network, Thai media have been less shy about making unsubstantiated leaps to cast suspicion on usual-suspect ethnic and minority groups.
According to Daily News, the Bangkok bombing was a Uighur plot, a claim it reported without circumspection.
“In previous intelligence reports, [police] discovered that a terrorist group, who are believed to be Uighurs, was preparing to cause unrest in Bangkok in response to the Thai government sending Uighurs to be prosecuted in China,” the report said. “The target was where mainland Chinese travel or stay.”
Daily News claims they chose to targeted Erawan Shrine, a place of worship surrounded by luxury malls and five-star hotels, which draws thousands of Chinese tourists daily.
Another newspaper, Khaosod, similarly quoted an unnamed police officer as saying that police are looking for a “white Arab,” who is possibly Uighur, in connection to the bombing. Khaosod and Khaosod English are owned by the same company, Matichon Group.
These reports linking Uighurs to the blast have also been widely shared on social media.
However, the Uighurs have never launched an attack outside of China, according to British journalist and author David Eimer, who spent seven years in China and wrote extensively on the subject.
"They dont have the capacity to mount this sort of operation," Eimer said. "If they have, it's a massive, quantum leap in their capability. There is no history of them mounting any attacks outside of China."
Outgoing Thai police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang told reporters today the investigation is not particularly focused on the Uighur angle, as set forth by the media.
Asked whether he believes the attack was committed by foreigners, such as Uighurs, Police Gen. Somyot said, “I have never said this is an act perpetrated by foreigners. All I am saying is that police give importance equally to all points, until there is sufficient evidence to point otherwise, or until the perpetrators have been arrested.”
He said the police are not convinced their only suspect so far, a man seen in security footage wearing a backpack near the crime scene, is in fact a foreigner.
“The suspect may have disguised his face to look like a foreigner, so police are not entirely convinced [that he is],” he said. “Therefore, I will not answer any media questions that may cause conflict in the country, because right now we have no evidence that leads us to the perpetrators.”
Calling on Thai media to be more responsible, Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn, Minister of Foreign Affairs, said authorities have yet to find any evidence of foreigners being involved in the attack.
Asked specifically whether there is any basis to the alleged Uighur connection, Thanasak said the Thai media should wait for evidence before furthering claims that might be irresponsible.
“You must wait for the authorities to investigate, wait for evidence, and wait for explanation first,” he said. “You cannot talk without evidence like this. … Thai media has to think about what an accurate fact is.”
No arrest warrant has been issued so far, though police have released a CCTV footage of an unidentified suspect who was seen leaving a backpack at the shrine prior to the explosion.
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