Floundering Bomb Investigation Deepens Doubts About Competency

Investigators canvas the scene after the 17-Aug bombing of Bangkok's Erawan Shrine.

By Todd Ruiz

BANGKOK — Less than a year after Thailand’s last high-profile criminal investigation left observers scratching their heads, the competency and professionalism of its police are under a new level of scrutiny, only this time much more is at stake.

Eleven months on from a widely-panned investigation into the murders of two tourists on a resort island, those hoping last week’s horrific bombing of Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine would bring gravitas and professionalism to the ensuing investigation have instead seen the same baffling pronouncements and self-contradictory assertions.

“When you consider this follows on the back of a number of high-profile incidents in which the competency of Thai authorities has been called into question, this was the chance to set that narrative correct,” said Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.


Bangkok Shrine Bombing: Those Who Died

Fourteen of the 20 people killed 17 Aug. hailed from outside the kingdom, leaving regional partners waiting for answers that so far have been in short supply from a state apparatus with “poor message management,” said Poling, the center’s Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies.

“The most important thing is that people are watching, and you see frustration building over notions of whether Thai authorities are really capable of investigating this professionally,” he said.

As much as during the height of the investigation into the murder of two Britons on Koh Tao, priorities have seemed obsessed with optics instead of substance.

This has left the public to settle for briefings that sometimes fall short of deductive reasoning.

“I don’t believe Thai people are the perpetrators … because the incident is a behavior that is too cruel for Thai people with Thai hearts to do to their fellow Thais,” Deputy Police Chief Chaktip Chaijinda said yesterday.

In a short span of days, top officials alternately have implied the attack was carried out by domestic elements, speculated it was a foreign operation, discounted that theory and said they have no idea.

A state media report today quoted police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang saying no one could be ruled out. It also  mentioned police interrogation of three Uighurs in the eastern province of Sakaew, “not because they are accusing the trio of involving in the two explosions in Bangkok, but police need information from all sources they could find in order to solve the case.”

Unable to control the message in the social media age, authorities have made increasingly aggressive demands they be entrusted as the source of information while failing to satisfactorily deliver it.

Somyot on Monday said police would seek the prosecution of anyone spreading false information, whether it was spread through a smartphone or television broadcast.

Meanwhile the investigation seems to have run into a wall. The biggest development this week was the release of an arrest warrant yesterday for the suspected Sathorn Pier bomber. A warrant that describes the man only as “Asian” between 25 and 30, 170 centimeters in height. Police Chief Somyot today expressed confidence it would “lead to his arrest,” despite lacking a nationality or name.

That lack of visible progress, aggravated by conflicting statements and off-the-cuff speculation, have left the public and media to speculate – sometimes wildly.


Vectors of Blame

Within hours of the attack, gut-check blame was extended to the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group in western China. In July, Turkish nationalists had stormed the Thai consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in response to Thailand’s decision to deport more than 100 of them back to China against their will.

A pattern of circumstantial evidence, such as reports investigators were looking for a person of interest who might have used a fake Turkish passport, fueled theories the attack could have been an act of revenge.

At a Monday evening panel hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Club, a regional security expert laid out his leading hypothesis: The attack was perpetrated by far-right Turkish fascists known as the “Grey Wolves.”

For nearly five decades, the Grey Wolves have carried out assassinations and terror in the name of Turkish supremacy, mostly against Kurds, and have reached out to Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

Anthony Davis, an analyst with IHS Jane's, said they were one of the only groups with both the motive and the means.

Starved for developments, international and local media issued a volley of reports on that speculation in the likes of Forbes, Financial Times and Reuters. Reuters yesterday reported Turkey saying it had received no inquiries from Thai authorities.

Saying nobody could be ruled out, the center’s Poling said the involvement of the Grey Wolves was as likely or unlikely as other group. He said the attack didn’t fit their pattern, just as it didn’t fit that of yellow-red political violence or the southern insurgency.

“What would be the point of carrying out an international attack and then not take credit for it?” he said.

Only five weeks passed between Thailand’s widely criticized move to deport the Uighurs and the Erawan Shrine bombing. And some by some accounts the perpetrators might have been in Bangkok for at least eight months.

International Relations Prof. Paul Chambers dismissed speculation of Uighur involvement as “empty smoke” and a false lead chased by police fixed on finding an Arab suspect.

“Uighurs are treated badly in Cambodia, too,” said Chambers, who teaches at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs. “But why not bomb buildings in Cambodia?”


A Challenge to Legitimacy?

The attack, compounded by the failure to convince the public it is being investigated competently, is drawing frustration both within and without Thailand, Poling said, which could pose a threat to the military government’s stated raison d’etre.

“It undercuts the junta’s claim to legitimacy. They’re saying that, whatever else, ‘We've brought stability,’” he said. “If that narrative gets undermined, then who knows what the reaction might be?”

Chambers sees it differently. His most likely suspect in the attack is some element within the state apparatus, whether military or police. He said of all the players on the board, Thai security forces had the most to gain and the greatest capacity to carry out the attack.

“It will actually enable junta to rationalize their rule to stay in power longer,” he said.

Government representatives have dismissed out of hand any suggestion they might have been complicit in the attack.

Not knowing who attacked the nation and why makes it difficult to anticipate whether to expect or prepare for future attacks.

Poling said the Erawan Shrine bombing was likely an “outlier” that doesn't necessarily put international terror on the threat board.

“Do I think this is a harbinger of a future where Thailand has to worry about being a front in Islamic terror? Probably not.”

Additional reporting Teeranai Charuvastra.


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