Thai investigators have declared case closed in the Bangkok bombing; but it shouldn’t be.
On 28 September, Thailand’s chief of police Somyot Poompunmuang announced that the case of the 17 August bombing in central Bangkok that killed 20 and wounded more than 120 others had been “solved” despite the fact that 15 suspects remained at large and that they were ready to prosecute the only two suspects it had in custody.
The police then gave themselves some $84,000 in reward money. It was a most unconvincing conclusion to an investigation that had been riddled with incompetence, conflicting press statements, lack of follow through, and political meddling, in which the facts had to comport with the military junta’s worldview.
Despite rivalries between the police and army, Somyot was hand selected by the junta following their May 2014 coup d’etat and was trusted to do their bidding. He did not disappoint. Although the fact that the bombing took place only blocks away from the Royal Thai Police headquarters, the initial investigation and forensic evidence collection was remarkably shoddy.
The bombing confounded security analysts as it fit the modus operendi of no group. Groups that had the capabilities had no motive, and vice versa. The lack of any claim of responsibility added to the confusion.
The military junta immediately denied that it was the work of international terrorists and tried to pin the attack on radical “Red Shirts.” But the attack was well beyond the technical capacity or interests of even the most rabid opponents of the military regime.
After 12 days of missteps, Thai police made their first arrest on 29 August, an ethnic Uighur carrying an obviously forged Turkish passport, who was found with a large cache of explosive materials in his apartment. Three days later, the Thai army arrested a second suspect, also a Uighur carrying a Chinese passport, who had likely been handed over by Cambodian officials. Authorities detained an ethnic Malay in Thailand’s Deep South days later in connection with the bombing.
The government issued 14 more warrants, but all remain at large, and no government – in particular the Turkish government, which has been highly critical of both China and Thailand – seems all that helpful. To date, no formal extradition requests have been received by the Turkish government, despite the fact that at least three of the top suspects were tracked there.
There were some really strong parts of the investigation, in particular on the financial side, where both police and anti-money laundering officials displayed professionalism. Yet too many other aspects of the investigation were amateurishly handled or forced to comport to the junta’s conclusions to instill any sense of confidence in Thai law enforcement.
For example, Thai police completely dropped the ball when Malaysia detained three suspects, including two Malaysians and a Pakistani. Senior Thai police officials stated that there was actually no need to go and interview them, let alone begin extradition proceedings. Days later, it leaked out, the deputy police chief had traveled to Malaysia without the approval of his superiors, to at the very least follow up on the Malaysian investigation.
By early-September the role of Uighurs and radical Turkish nationalists was beyond doubt. But it was not until 15 September that the government officially made the connection. And even still, Thai authorities continued to insist that this was not an act of international terrorism, but instead an act of “vengeance” by human traffickers angered by Bangkok’s crackdown.
Why is the junta so fixated on this?
First, there is palpable fear that if they call the bombing “terrorism,” it will impact the lucrative tourist industry, some 25 million visitors annually accounting for 10 per cent of GDP. Since the May 2014 coup, the junta’s economic mismanagement has led to sharp downturns in economic growth, including tourism; they just can’t afford any further setbacks.
Second, in July 2015, Thailand once again received Tier 3 status, the lowest rating by the US Government in its annual Trafficking in Persons report. Thailand is under intense international pressure to stop the pervasive trafficking that goes on within its borders, which includes the complicity of very high ranking members of the security forces. So their assertion that this was a human trafficking ring’s way of responding to the government’s crackdown has a diplomatic imperative.
Third, in July 2015, Thailand acquiesced to Beijing’s demand that it render some 109 Uighurs who had fled China and were en route to Turkey, which has been highly critical of China’s policies towards its Turkic minority. Since the May 2014 coup, the junta has been widely ostracised by the West, and the United States has repeatedly called for the return to democratic rule.
China has swooped into the void, with regular senior-leader engagements, increased military exchanges and exercises, and the potential of a US$1 billion submarine sale. The returned Uighurs were shown hooded, bound, with guards on either side during their return to China – ostensibly to “prevent a hijacking.”
Since their return they have been detained without charge for “re-education.” The junta cannot afford to alienate China due to the fact that it has no other allies. If it labeled the attack as terrorism in response to Thai government policy, then they open the regime to challenges to its policies.
Finally, if this was indeed an act of international terrorism, then it would put pressure on the Thai government to divert resources away from internal security, which has been the sole priority of the military government since seizing power in May 2014.
The junta equates regime survival with national security and has diverted the vast majority of manpower and resources – which have been dramatically increased – towards opponents of the regime. Why shift resources towards meaningful threats to Thailand or its economy, when they can be focused on more spurious Article 112 lese majeste investigations for defaming the monarchy.
Indeed, on 28 September, the police chief also linked the bombing to a radical Red Shirt, calling it “politically motivated,” offering only the most tenuous evidence. Yet, the Department of Special Investigations – a bureaucratic rival to the police that is part of the Ministry of Justice – completely dismissed such that finding.
And yet, there is no evidence that this was simply a human trafficking ring. They were definitely part of a group that was moving Uighurs to Turkey, but this was not a criminal trafficking ring. Moreover, it defies all logic: if this was a for profit smuggling organisation, what would they stand to gain by targeting a lucrative sector of the Thai economy and bringing intense investigative scrutiny on their actions?
The two suspects are likely to stand trial in a military court, though for murder, not terrorism. And with 14 suspects still at large, there are many outstanding questions.
But as they point to conclusions that are inconvenient for the junta, it seems that the case is now closed.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College where he focuses on Southeast Asian politics and security issues.