September 2, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Curious Case of the Bangkok Bombing

• Thai authorities have arrested a second person in connection to the August 17 bombing in downtown Bangkok that killed 20 and injured more than 100

• The bombing, Thailand’s worst in decades, is unlike other bombings in the country; the perpetrators and their motives are still very much uncertain

• The Thai government has handled the public side of the investigation rather clumsily; it issued conflicting statements and ominous orders not to refer to the attack as terrorism nor as sabotage

• Thailand is already under great political and societal strain; terrorist attacks aimed at its tourist economy only add to the nation’s challenges.


Two weeks after one of the worst terrorist attacks in Thailand’s history, Thai authorities have arrested a second individual in connection with the August 17 bombing that killed 20 and injured more than 100. Like the first suspect arrested on August 29, the second has been described simply as “foreign”—a broad term that suggests difficulty in verifying the suspects’ true nationality. Given the large amounts of fake passports seized with the first arrest, the initial confusion is somewhat understandable.

There is also confusion as to the motives of the ‘foreign’ perpetrators. Thai officials have been adamant that the terms ‘terrorism’ or ‘sabotage’ are not be used in describing the bombing—one that is markedly different from previous bombings in the country. There have been no claims of responsibility, making a political motive less likely. Likewise, the venue—a crowded location certain to be filled with foreigners—also makes an internal political motive less likely.

After the second arrest, officials stated that the motive might be revenge; the culprits may have been involved in human smuggling. Thailand has cracked down on what was an extensive network of smuggling migrants into nearby Malaysia, and the attack could have been an attempt by the smugglers to lash out, hurting the Thai economy much as the crackdown has hurt the smugglers’ industry. The fake passports would fit into this hypothesis.

Left unsaid by Thai authorities, but mentioned widely by others, is the possibility that the attack was an altogether different type of revenge, from ethnic-Turkic Uighurs seeking to punish Thailand for sending 100 Uighurs back to China in June. The repatriation was extremely controversial, and the images of hooded Uighurs being escorted off a plane in China would serve as powerful motivation for attackers. China is the second largest market for Thai exports and the largest importer into Thailand. The military junta now running the Thai government will want to downplay any negative impacts of the recent Uighur repatriation—which the Chinese government had pushed for—due to the strengthening ties between the two countries. In fact, six of the attack's twenty fatalities were Chinese tourists. Still, there is no evidence yet of a Uighur connection, though the Turkish passports would fit into that hypotheses as well.

Aside from the tragic loss of life, the bombing at the Erawan Shrine in a busy shopping area of the capital is another troubling development in a deeply troubled country. The long-running political drama between the royalty, military, and opposition shows no sign of abating. It does not take much to raise tensions to unsafe levels; protests can quickly turn to riots and then to violence. The Thai authorities are working quickly to assess the threat and then mitigate it; it remains to be seen if the threat is local or foreign, and if it will persist.


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