Monday’s bombing of Erawan shrine in central Bangkok has killed at least 22 people and injured more than 120. Yesterday, a second bomb fortunately resulted in no injuries when it bounced into the water at popular tourist spot, Sathorn Pier.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, has described the Erawan shrine bombing as the ‘worst ever attack’.
Despite the Royal Thai Police’s focus on the offenders, the international media’s analysis of the incident is exposing a large number of politically and religiously motivated groups capable of terrorism in the ‘Land of Smiles’.
Despite claims to the contrary by Thai officials, the media and travellers, the attack is far from unprecedented.
Terrorism looms large in Thailand, and has done so since at least 2001. In 2015 alone, there have been multiple bombings in the country, from Southern Thailand, to Koh Samui, to Bangkok. What’s more, these bombings haven’t been attributed to only one group.
In addition to the global threat from terrorism from ISIS, a number of other highly prominent terrorist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas, are rumoured to have a presence in Bangkok.
But the absence of any claim of responsibility is a strong indicator that the ‘usual’ international terror groups aren’t involved.
In southern Thailand, the Patani separatist movement has conducted a series of terror attacks over more than a decade. Hundreds of casualties, including insurgents as well as soldiers and civilians, have been reported each year. Bombings believed to be linked to the separatist movements occurred in Songkhla in 2005 (two killed, 60-plus injured), Hat Yai in 2006 (four killed, 80-plus injured), 10 bombs in South Thailand towns in February 2007 (seven killed, 23-plus injured) and seven more bombs in Songkhla in May 2007 (four killed, 36 injured), and a series of bombs in several towns again in 2012 (16 killed, 300-plus injured).
While the Patani separatist group are possible contenders, especially given the first attack was on a religious site, their activities have previously been limited to Thailand’s southern states.
On 10 July, The Thai government upset members of the Muslim Uighur community in Turkey and Thailand when it deported nearly 100 Uighur’s back to China, despite US condemnation. A number of human rights groups claim that the Uighur face certain persecution in China. In Turkey, the deportation sparked a number of violent protests. But although it’s hard to prove that anger with the Thai government could have led to such an attack, there’s a strong possibility.
In Bangkok, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or ‘Red Shirts’ have also been implicated in a number of terror-type incidents. In 2015, a bombing at a shopping centre in Bangkok (two injured) and a grenade attack at a car park (none injured) were attributed to Red Shirt supporters, with reports that many more attacks were planned.
Without any claim of responsibility and with so many potential motivations, until the Royal Thai Police can catch a suspect, it’s unlikely that we will know who or what was really responsible for the attack. In the meantime, public confidence in the Thai military government’s ability to maintain safety and security will continue to decline if there are any further attacks.
The Royal Thai Army launched a coup d’état in May 2014 to restore and maintain peace in the wake of an extended period of politically motivated violence that was crippling Thailand’s economy. While the domestic security situation remains unstable the likelihood that the military-led National Council for Peace and Order will reinstate the Thai constitution seems slim.
For Australia, Thailand is an important law enforcement and national security partner. Closer cooperation between the two countries in the area of counter-terrorism is critical to defeating any regional threat. While Australians continue to travel to Thailand they could be threatened by potential terror attacks. Australia should continue to offer vital support in the form of forensic specialists to the Thai investigation. This attack also brings into question the wisdom of successive government efficiency dividend cuts to the Australian Federal Police’s footprint in Thailand.