The slaughter of innocent people in Bangkok last week was a shocking event. But its immediate political and social implications are probably limited.
Cleaners and street sweepers of the Bangkok metropolitan services were diligently working at the Ratchaprasong intersection by 11 am on 18 August, according to reports in social media.
This was in close proximity to the Erawan Shrine, where just sixteen hours before a lethal blast had killed twenty-two and injured over one hundred. Whether that meant that the police had sufficient opportunity to secure evidence is uncertain. One BBC reporter, Jonathon Head did report that he had been able to find a bomb fragment three days after the blast.
Asked whether the street cleaning was premature, Bangkok governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra replied that as the government did not specifically prohibit cleaning following the explosion, it was performed as normal.
Cleaning up and moving on after street violence is something Thais have done often. In an illuminating piece in the Asian Correspondent, Matthew Phillips notes that Bangkok’s periodic outbreaks of domestic politically-motivated violence date as far back as the Cold War and as recently as 2014.
In their aftermath, Thai people across the political spectrum have accepted the duty of presenting to foreigners an image of a beautiful, refined and welcoming ‘land of smiles’ as a personal obligation. Furthermore, the grim reality is that political violence over the past decade has overwhelmed the Thai justice system.
Deaths remain unexplained, killers at large and unaccountable, sometimes merely referred to as the “mue thi sam” or the “third hand”. Public expectations for justice remain commensurately low.
So while the deaths of Chinese, Malaysians and other foreign nationals might complicate the governments’ goal of rapid normalisation, only a marked uptick in foreign involvement will prevent the process of therapeutic amnesia from kicking in.
Unless this blast is followed by more like it, the early signs are that will not happen.
The scale of loss of life, while significant, appears unlikely to garner the level of intense foreign government attention that the 2002 Bali bombings did, with its killing of 88 Australians on Indonesian soil. Four Chinese nationals did die in the Bangkok blast, prompting the recall of the Chinese ambassador for consultations.
But it’s not clear that China will push Thailand as hard as it did in 2011, when 13 Chinese crew on board a ship in the Mekong were murdered. In the aftermath of that violence, China sought joint river patrols in Thai territory. This proposal was ultimately rejected, an interesting indication of the limits of China’s growing, albeit not unlimited, influence.
There are also few early indications that the Thai military government will seek to use this incident to switch from its current ‘reform’ narrative to a ‘national security’ narrative. Hence the blasts’ domestic political implications probably lie mainly in its longer term economic impact.
Here the blast comes at a bad time, with the economy performing poorly and the government under pressure to replace its economic ministers. Tourism and its associated investment contributes as much as a fifth of Thai GDP by some estimates.
Against a backdrop of declining manufacturing and primary exports, tourism is overall becoming more important. The attack has had an immediate impact on tour bookings, but the question is whether tourism will recover to pre-blast levels.
The Chinese tourist deaths are particularly unfortunate, because in the wake of the 2014 coup Western tourism has fallen and tour groups from China have been of greater importance. Falling tourism and potentially lower domestic consumer confidence is all bad news for the economy, and therefore the government’s popularity. Certainly the military government’s self-proclaimed goal of “returning the Thai smile” is not getting any easier.
Finally, there is the unquantifiable symbolic impact of the attack having occurred on an immensely popular Hindu shrine. The smashing of the Erawan statue by a mentally-disturbed man in March 2006 was seen as an ill-omen for the then Thaksin government and a precursor to its fall in the 19 September coup d’etat.
What its damage in the recent blast might mean for the current government is impossible to guess.
Greg Raymond is a research associate at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University. His PhD thesis on Thailand’s strategic culture is currently under examination.