Do the Bangkok blasts herald a potential upsurge in terrorist attacks across Southeast Asia?
The bomb which exploded on Monday evening outside Bangkok’s most important Hindu Shrine brought mainstream terrorism with all of its diabolical trimmings to the streets of Southeast Asia’s most popular tourist destination.
The small but powerful device packed with ball bearings ripped through Thai commuters and foreign tourists leaving more than 20 dead on a balmy evening at around seven.
Anyone who has visited Bangkok has passed this spot, marvelling at the incessant ritual offering to the gold-encrusted four-faced effigy of the Lord Brahma around which the shrine is built, or walking to one of the many shopping malls in the area. In many ways, this marks the heart of the city.
Bangkok is accustomed to low intensity violence perpetrated by warring political factions. There have even been terrorist attacks, till now targeting Israeli interests. In 1994 there was an attempted truck bomb attack on the Israeli embassy (thankfully the truck failed to explode), and in 2012, a botched attempt to assassinate Israeli diplomats involving suspected Iranian terrorists.
However, this is the first time a professional terrorist attack targeting innocent people has been carried out. A second bomb exploded harmlessly after being thrown off a bridge into a canal the following day, and police are still trying to determine if the two bombs are connected.
In Thailand’s polarised political environment it was understandable that the first instinct was to link the attacks to domestic political differences. Thailand’s colour coded politics has a track record of using small explosive devices to intimidate but rarely hurt supporters of one or other side. The weapon of choice is the M79 Grenade launched from a rifle.
There was also understandable suspicion directed at the Malay Muslim insurgents battling the Thai government in the country’s three southernmost provinces of Patani, Narathiwat and Yala.
The main armed group, The National Revolutionary Front or BRN, has waged a lethal insurgency that involves almost daily bombings and shootings, but has rarely taken its attacks outside the three provinces.
A car bomb that exploded in a hotel car park on the holiday island of Koh Samui earlier this year appeared to break the mould; it was deliberately designed to send a warning, not kill large numbers of people – even though an Italian teenager was slightly wounded.
The bomb used in the 17 August attack was of another order; a pipe bomb composed of High Explosive TNT and five millimetre ball bearings. The Patani Insurgency has always used more readily available ammonium nitrate as the basic ingredient of its improvised explosive devices.
The worst imaginable scenario would be that an external jihadist group linked up with sympathetic elements in Thailand, possibly Muslim Malays from the Deep South, to plan and execute a spectacular terrorist attack.
In addition to the grievance nursed by Muslims across the region about the situation in the South there might also have been an urge to hit back at Thailand after the government decided in June to deport more than 100 Uighur refugees to China and almost certain imprisonment or worse.
Nothing is certain at this stage. The military junta has promised to hunt down the culprits and launched an investigation that according to some diplomatic sources is using some pretty sophisticated electronic sleuthing, even if the composite picture of the man in a yellow t-shirt caught walking away after depositing his bag looks a bit like the boy next door.
The larger question for Southeast Asia is whether the lull in terrorist activity since the attacks post 2001 has come to an end and the ugly face of the new jihad in Syria and Iraq is starting to wash back east of Suez. Thailand’s borders are not impregnable, visas are not for the most part required, and Bangkok’s seedy underbelly harbours sizable Arab, African and South Asian communities. It would not be hard to develop a cell, or activate a lone wolf terrorist.
One thing is for sure. More attacks like this will start to scare off the tourists who contribute as much as 10 per cent of GDP growth. Thailand can ill-afford a slump.
The attack has also seriously dented the confidence of the military government, which has pinned its tenuous legitimacy on restoring peace and order.
Should the attack be traced to international jihadists, then it is likely to warm currently frigid relations between Thailand and many Western countries who have expressed concerns about repression and the absence of a clear roadmap back to civilian rule. No one wants their citizens in this popular tourist destination exposed to the dangers of another terrorist attack.
Terrorism trumps politics.
Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Regional Director for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.