What’s Behind Thailand’s Deadly Bomb Blast?

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What’s Behind Thailand’s Deadly Bomb Blast?

An explosion has killed at least 16 people.

A bomb planted inside one of Thailand’s most renowned shrines exploded Monday evening, killing at least 16 people and wounding more than 80 in what appears to be the worst in a series of explosions since the Thai military took power in a coup last May.

According to The Bangkok Post, the blast occurred at 6:55pm local time near the Erawan Shrine, an important tourist destination by the busy Ratchaprasong intersection in the center of Bangkok. The shrine is popular among both locals as well as foreign tourists, particularly ethnic Chinese from East Asian nations like Singapore and Taiwan.

Police have confirmed that at least 16 people have been killed, including one Filipino and Chinese national, though some sources have already reported the death toll to have risen. Local media sources have said that most of the wounded were from China and Taiwan.

According to Police Commissioner General Somyot Poompanmuang, the bomb was planted at the location by suspects who wanted to carry out an attack with mass casualties.

“Whoever planted this bomb is cruel and aimed to kill. Planting a bomb there means they want to see a lot of people dead,” he said.

Several blasts have rocked the country since the May 2014 coup. The military junta has repeatedly alleged that these are orchestrated efforts to disrupt their rule, while its critics have cautioned that while vigilance is necessary, the government may also be exaggerating the extent of the threat to crack down on its opponents and prolong its reign.

In February, The Diplomat reported that Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha ordered security to be tightened in Bangkok after two bombs were detonated near a luxury shopping mall (See: “Thai Junta Vows Crackdown Following Bomb Blasts”). In March, two men allegedly confessed that “Red Shirt” supporters of the toppled government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra were planning more bomb attacks on up to 100 targets in Bangkok (See: “100 More Bomb Blasts Planned in Thailand, Police Told”).

Monday’s blast appears to be the deadliest of the post-coup attacks thus far, just as pressure has been mounting on the junta to get the country’s economy in order and hold a much-delayed election to restore democracy. Thailand’s defense minister Prawit Wongsuwan said that the attacks were not only meant to inflict mass casualties, but were clearly intended to destroy the country’s economy and tourist industry. Though Thailand’s tourism sector is a key growth driver – accounting for around 10 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) – tourism arrivals took a hit for much of last year due to political unrest.

“The perpetrators intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district,” Prawit told Reuters.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told The Nation television channel that the government would set up a “war room” to coordinate its response to the blast.

No groups have claimed responsibility for the attacks thus far, and it would be premature to assign blame so soon after the attack even though some reports have already begun to suggest potential links. In its report, Reuters mentions that initial suspicion may fall on Muslim separatists in the south of the country who have been waging an insurgency against the government which has waxed and waned for decades. Yet as I have noted before, the deadly Southern Thailand insurgency has remained mostly local since its reemergence in 2004 (See: “More Than Words Needed on Southern Thailand”).

Some officials have already begun claiming that this may be orchestrated by opponents of the government. Going beyond Prawit, defense spokesman Kongcheep Tantrawanich said the bombing was “the work of those who have lost political interests and want to destroy the ‘happy time’ of Thai people.” While this may eventually be proven to be true, observers should also be cautious about pointing fingers so definitively on one side given the deep political divide in the country.