As Bangkok reels from second bombing in two days, a hunt for clues

Monday's bombing at a Hindu shrine at a downtown junction killed at least 20 people, including several Asian tourists who were praying. Police said a second botched attack Tuesday at a pier used the same type of explosive. 

People run from an explosion at a ferry pier in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. No one was hurt in Tuesday's blast, but police say the explosive device was thrown from a bridge and blew up after falling into the river below.

For the past decade, Bangkok has weathered successive rounds of political turmoil and protest violence. But the city has been relatively calm since a military junta seized power in May 2014 and imposed heavy restrictions on free speech and public gatherings.

That surface calm was shattered Monday after a massive bomb was detonated outside a popular Hindu shrine in the heart of the city’s business district and killed at least 20 people, many of them foreigners.

A second explosive erupted at another popular tourist site on Tuesday, causing panic but no injuries. Security camera footage shows the second bomb, apparently tossed from a bridge over the city’s main river, narrowly missing a pier used by tourists on sightseeing trips. In the footage, several people are seen crossing a walkway to the pier when the explosive lands in the water nearby.

According to Thailand’s police chief, the bomb thrown at the pier was similar to the explosive used at the shrine. “We believe that the perpetrators belong to same group,” Thai media quoted police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang as saying. “In terms of intelligence, we have made some progress, but I cannot disclose it, because it is a classified information."

Thai police also identified a suspect behind Monday’s bombing: a man wearing a yellow T-shirt seen on grainy security camera footage entering the scene with a backpack, and then leaving the bag behind.

Taken together, the two attacks have rattled Thailand's sense of security and given notice that its chronic political turmoil appears far from over. But so far there are still few clues about who the perpetrators are and what they hoped to gain. Critics of the coup worry that the uncertain threat will only prolong the repressive rule of the junta, which has been dragging its heels on a proposed timetable for restoring civilian rule.  

Thailand’s police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang said police have not yet determined whether the man with the backpack is a Thai or foreigner, but expressed confidence that he is responsible for the bombing. “I'd like to ask people who witnessed the event and may have photographed him to please send the photos to police,” he said.

Unsolved bombings in the past

Thai officials and police are often quick to point the finger at suspects in the wake of violence, but the investigations can drag on for years. Dozens of cases from the past decade of political violence in Thailand remain unsolved or disputed, including two smaller bombings in Bangkok and on the island of Koh Samui earlier this year. 

However, most government officials have hesitated to comment on a suspected motive or movement behind this week’s bomb attacks, which they said could have been engineered by domestic or foreign militants. There has been no claim of responsibility for either attack.

Analysts say the magnitude and scope of Monday’s bomb does not neatly fit into any patterns of violence perpetrated by militant movements in Thailand’s recent past.

Some academics have proposed that the bombs could have been planted by a radical wing of the Red Shirts, a group loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and opposed to the military government. Others have argued that the excess of bloodshed, and targeting of an important religious site, means the attack is unlikely to have been fueled by a domestic agenda.

In southern Thailand, security forces are battling a simmering insurgency by Muslim separatists who have staged near-daily bombings and shootings for more than a decade in an effort to secede the Muslim-majority region, which borders Malaysia.

So far, these militants haven’t staged any major attacks much farther north. But Zachary Abuza, an independent American scholar who has conducted extensive interviews with insurgents, says it’s possible that a rogue group frustrated with the movement’s stagnation planted the shrine bomb in Bangkok.

“If it is linked to an insurgent group, my guess is you’re going to find a younger cell of frustrated [insurgents] who are operating on their own authority,” he says. “It’s totally possible.”

Gunpowder and Hindu gods

Monday’s bombing occurred during rush hour at the bustling Ratchaprasong intersection, a shopping district studded with luxury malls and hotels. The Hindu shrine is thronged daily with locals and foreigners laying offerings in a pungent cloud of incense. It's common for Buddhists in Thailand to worship Hindu gods and festivals. 

Witnesses of the blast describe a hellish scene of burning vehicles, strewn body parts, and broken glass from the shattered windows of a nearby mall.

“It was ugly,” says Luis Marijnissen, a Dutch expatriate who saw the carnage from the elevated skywalk above the small crater left by the bomb. “I saw fire, there was a burning smell of gasoline, and what smelled like gunpowder. Lots of people were screaming.”

“I didn’t sleep well last night,” he adds.

According to government spokespersons, at least seven of the casualties from Monday’s bomb were from Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, and Singapore. Five of the dead have been identified as Thais, while the nationalities of eight others remain unknown. The UK said a Briton residing in Hong Kong was among the dead.  

Many of the dead and injured were likely paying respect to the Erawan shrine when the bomb exploded. Although the bomb caused significant damage to the surrounding pavement, signs, and store windows, the statue of the Hindu god Brahma housed inside the shrine remains intact.   

Tourism in trouble

Still, tourism is likely to take a serious hit at a time of economic slowdown in Thailand. Six of the dead were from China, which has become the biggest source of foreign tourists and contributes billions of dollars to Thailand's economy annually.

On Tuesday, the US Embassy sent a warning to American citizens, urging them to stay clear of the pier where the second bomb was thrown, and “take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security.”

Thailand’s finance minister, Sommai Phase, expressed concern Monday about the financial fallout. “I am very worried about this bombing because it happened in the heart of the city, which is a financial district, and an important economic area with commerce and tourism,” he said.  

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