What is known: At least 22 people were killed and scores more injured Monday when a bomb exploded at the Erawan Shrine, a Hindu site that is one of Bangkok’s most popular attractions. And on Tuesday, a small explosive device appeared to have been thrown towards a pier from the Taksin bridge in the Thai capital, police said. Passersby were showered with water in the resulting explosion, but no one was injured.
Now, what is not known: exactly who is responsible from among a larger rogue’s gallery than one might expect to find in a part of the world heretofore deemed relatively safe to visit.
Police last night were seeking a man seen on closed-circuit television leaving a backpack inside the holy site, but no group had stepped forward to claim responsibility. Authorities acknowledge that they have scant information about the man spotted on CCTV. His nationality isn’t even known, let alone any possible motive — if, indeed, he had any connection to Monday’s blast.
Eyewitness Marko Cunningham, a New Zealand paramedic, told Reuters that the murder scene resembled “a meat market: bodies everywhere . . . some shredded . . . legs where heads were supposed to be. It was horrific.”
Thailand Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwong said the apparent intent was to “target foreigners and damage tourism and the economy.” With that in mind, CNN said three Chinese tourists were killed and 15 wounded, and there have been reports of Filipino fatalities and injuries.
With no one immediately taking responsibility, suspicion quickly — and predictably — fell upon the southern borderlands, where a Malay-Muslim insurgency has taken some 6,000 lives since 2004, many via similar bombings. According to The CTC Sentinel, a wave of such attacks earlier this year injured 27 people, including seven in a mall’s underground parking lot on a resort island.
But that was the insurgents’ first foray outside their territory in a year. Despite a possible shift to larger, urban targets, they seem to prefer staying close to home, as was the case in June in the shooting deaths of four members of the Thai military.
Indeed, an Islamist attack in Bangkok on the scale of what occurred Monday is unprecedented, according to The Sentinel. The insurgents have tended to strike when the opportunity presents itself. This attack, on the other hand, seems to have been well timed to inflict maximum casualties. The United States’ State Department was among those to express initial reluctance in classifying it as terrorism.
All of which leaves the Thai government forced to consider a nightmare scenario — that this was not an attack by a fringe gang of rebels seeking autonomy but, rather, a strike by a more sophisticated group against military rule, the Southeast Asian nation’s reality since a May 2014 coup.
After a period of martial law, the government — under Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who was installed as prime minister after the ouster of Yingluck Shinawatra — replaced it with a more sweeping directive that some critics consider even harsher, sparking speculation that Prayuth, too, harbors strongman aspirations.
Tensions have risen amid the knowledge that, despite the government’s assurances that democracy will be restored, even the most optimistic forecast calls for no elections until 2016. Nor has a rift within military-royalist factions, as described in a New York Times Op-Ed, helped matters.
Writer Pavin Chachavalpongpun describes a simmering conflict between the old guard, which rose to power as adherents of King Bhumibol Aduyaldej, and the new guard, comprised primarily of Queen Sirikit’s elite protectors. Prayuth belongs to the latter, and not everyone in the old guard is pleased with what has occurred during his 16 months at the helm. There have even been rumblings of a potential countercoup.
That, perhaps, is why Prayuth has of late been adamantly defending a new law that promises heavy fines and time behind bars for anyone arrested while taking part in a public protest or demonstration held without police permission.
And while he has indicated, in response to demands that he do something about the sputtering economy, that his cabinet will undergo a major overhaul, he has also said: “I changed [the cabinet] a long time ago, and it will be done whenever it will be done. I can change all 53 ministers, and when the time is right, I will reshuffle.”
Some critics see this sudden focus on consolidating power and quashing dissent as a sign that Prayuth’s veritable 15 minutes on stage are just about up, with Monday’s horror the first serious blow.
But as for the Hindu shrine, located in a high-traffic area that hosted several violent rallies preceding last year’s coup, it had gone largely untouched and was as popular with locals as with tourists. As CNN’s Saima Mohsin said: “For such a sacred shrine to be targeted is devastating for the local community and a wake-up call for the military-run government.”
In retrospect, two bombings outside an upscale Bangkok mall in February should have been taken as a sign of things to come, for those attacks took place just a train stop away from the shrine, Mohsin noted.
Now, as Prayuth gathers his most trusted aides and advisors for a war-room strategy session on how best to respond to these seeming attacks on Thailand’s tourism lifeline, and as authorities attempt to track down their “person of interest,” many outside the coveted inner circle of Thai leadership believe that if you look hard enough, you can see vultures — and not all of them insurgents — hovering above the carnage.