No one could have anticipated the bombing of Thailand’s Erawan shrine on August 17. Although the shrine itself has been the target of an attack by a crazed individual before – in 2006 a mentally ill Muslim man had used a hammer to destroy the Hindu shrine’s deity statue – it is widely considered a holy place of worship by Thais, having also attracted “believers” from other countries, especially from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
Reading through popular Thai blogs and websites like Pantip.com, it’s striking how quickly this tragedy has been politicized. For a country that has experienced more than its fair share of divisive political unrest in the past years, this is to be expected. Yellow Shirt supporters have already pinned the blame on the Red Shirts (and ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, in particular), just as critics of incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha have voiced concern over how the military government could use this tragedy as a ruse to stay in power.
But while there might be reason to suspect rogue Red Shirts given their track-record of arson in the surrounding area, as things stand, there is no reason why one should not also suspect Malay-Muslim insurgents from Thailand’s southern provinces, or Uyghur militants unhappy with the Thai government’s deportation of 109 Muslim Uyghurs back to China in July. (In contrast, speculation that the attack could have been orchestrated by the U.S., in the hope of undermining the ruling junta, does not sound compelling.)
While the Thai police appear to be seriously considering the possibility of Uyghur involvement, in both the Chinese and Thai blogospheres, a number of Chinese and Thai netizens are already convinced that Uyghur militants are the culprits. Pointing to the “Middle Eastern or Turkic” characteristics of the “yellow T-shirt” perpetrator captured in surveillance camera footage, Thai netizens claim that no Thai Buddhist would ever consider attacking this revered shrine. More recently, reports that at least three Thai government websites were hacked by the Tunisia-based Fallaga Team – the same group responsible for cyberattacks against French websites (specifically those supporting Charlie Hebdo) earlier this year – have added fuel to this conjecture.
Others still have taken note of how the Erawan shrine is very popular among Chinese tourists, suggesting that Chinese tourists were the real targets. Indeed, the Chinese government seemed to be equally convinced earlier on that this is the case, with Beijing having expressed “strong condemnation” of the attack. (An “anonymous” Chinese embassy spokeswoman has, however, told the South China Morning Post that conclusions involving Uyghur separatists are “irresponsible.”) Thai officials have also revealed “intelligence” gained from the police’s Special Branch on a potential attack on Chinese tourists in Bangkok “after 11 August.” Two weeks before the bombing, the Chinese embassy in Bangkok had apparently requested increased police presence around the embassy due to fears of a potential attack.
The Uyghurs are an ethnic minority in China’s Xinjiang region. Having long faced persecution by the Chinese state, many have fled Xinjiang to seek asylum in countries like Turkey, which shares cultural and religious ties. Last year in March, approximately 400 Uyghurs were detained for illegally entering Thailand. What ensued, however, was a drawn-out diplomatic row between China and Turkey, with each side claiming the group as their own. The Thai government ultimately decided to forcibly send back around 100 Uyghurs to China, amid outrage from the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United States and human rights groups, which accused the government of contravening the principle of non-refoulement. In response, a spokesperson of the Thai government stated that the government was committed to working with China to resolve “the Uyghur Muslim problem.”
Pro-Uyghur supporters in Turkey took a more heavy-handed approach. The Thai embassy in Ankara and consulate in Istanbul were temporarily closed in July, as a group of Uyghur supporters – mainly men – stormed the consulate, smashing windows, whilst holding up blue East Turkestan flags. Chinese businesses and tourists in Turkey were also reportedly attacked and assaulted by mobs, as news that Uyghurs in China were not allowed to fast during Ramadan angered protesters.
Although Uyghur separatists have not committed transnational terrorist acts before, this does not completely rule out the possibility that the Bangkok blast could have been orchestrated by a militant group. The fact that hard evidence remains tenuous at best makes any claim or dismissal about who the perpetrators might be equally questionable.
China was wracked by a series of “terror” attacks in 2014, which Beijing promptly blamed on Uyghur extremists (allegedly working with radical Islamist groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement). This included the horrific attack at a Kunming railway station, where 29 people were stabbed to death while over 130 were left wounded. Iskander Ehet, Turgun Tohtunyaz and Hasayn Muhammad were executed in March this year for their involvement in the Kunming attack. In July, a group of Uyghur men, arrested late last year by Indonesian authorities for conspiring with militant Islamists in Indonesia, were sentenced to a six-year jail term.
Even so, drawing premature conclusions as to who the “yellow T-shirt” perpetrator and his “network” conspirators are, and what motivated this vicious attack in the heart of downtown Bangkok (at rush hour no less), is unlikely to yield helpful insights. As Thai authorities struggle to find new leads in the case, and as the Thai government appears equally confounded by all that has transpired, starting a blame game must be avoided at all costs. The government is already under fire for inconsistencies in the narratives it has put forward. Further politicization of the issue will do little good to its credibility.
Nor will wild speculation help to allay Bangkokians’ mounting fears that Bangkok will never be the same again, as was the case for London after the 2005 London bombings. Given the bombing at Sathorn boat pier the day after the blast – the pier being another busy and usually heavily-populated area – those fears may well be founded.
P. M. Yeophantong teaches international relations and development at the University of New South Wales, Australia.