Wednesday 8 July 2020
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Thailand’s slipping smile: Bangkok bomb blows hole in country’s image


The short walk from Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine to Wat Pathum Wanaram, a Buddhist temple 500 metres away, used to be a sweaty but serene one. In the cacophonous commercial heart of the Thai capital, the two religious sites were oases of the calm that many travellers sought.

But the calm has been shattered so often now that, when it returns, it feels illusory. Five years ago, it was Wat Pathum that was caught up in the violence, as the Thai army attacked a “Red Shirt” anti-government protest camp in the middle of the city. The fighting left 91 people dead.

On Monday, it was the Erawan Shrine that became famous for the wrong reason, when a backpack bomb exploded inside, killing 20 people and injuring more than 100 others. The shrine and its golden statue of the four-faced Hindu god Brahma had previously been seen as the city’s good-luck charm.

This Southeast Asian kingdom has billed itself for years as the “land of smiles,” and Thailand has done a surprising job of keeping up that facade even as a succession of military coups have been followed by deadly political protests. A string of smaller bomb blasts in the far south of the country over the past decade served as reminders that Malay Muslim separatists continued to resent their place inside Thailand.

Despite it all, the tourists kept coming. In fact, the number of foreign visitors to Thailand rose 20 per cent in 2011, the year after the shootout in and around Wat Pathum. Tourist numbers peaked at an all-time high of more than 26.5 million in 2013, before taking a slight dip last year when the military ousted an elected government headed by Yingluck Shinawatra. But visitor numbers were on the rise again in the first half of this year.

When the armoured personnel carriers rolled into Bangkok last May, it marked the country’s 12th coup d’état since 1932. A bigger crisis lies ahead whenever the ailing, 87-year-old King Bhumibol dies (there’s little popular love for Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, and anti-monarchy sentiment is rising). But Thailand has kept smiling for the foreigners, with all sides in the political dispute abiding by an unspoken agreement not to threaten the tourist sector, the country’s economic lifeblood. Luckily, the sandy beaches and cheap pad thai stuck in visitors’ minds longer than the news headlines.

Monday’s blast inside the Erawan Shrine blew a fresh hole in that image. Not only was it the deadliest single such attack the city has seen, it was the first to directly threaten the country’s tourism. The blast scattered body parts all over the Rajaprasong intersection, the very centre of Bangkok, and rattled the windows of a trio of five-star hotels.

Worst of all – from the tourism industry’s perspective – 12 of the dead were foreigners, including six from from China, the biggest source country for visitors landing in Thailand.

A day later, a second attack saw a small improvised explosive hurled from a bridge toward a pier on the Chao Phraya River, another tourist attraction. The explosive landed harmlessly in the water, but the attempt further shook a nervous country.

Part of Thailand’s charm has always been the swirling chaos, the sense that the rules travellers live by elsewhere are suspended here. But that lawlessness has also made the city a hub for smugglers and human traffickers. The likes of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah are known to have used the city as a place to lie low and plan attacks.

None of this looks good on the ruling junta, which bills itself the National Council for Peace and Order. With both peace and order under threat, the junta resorted this week to Orwellian television and radio messages telling listeners over and over that “the situation is stable and has returned to normal” in a gentle female voice. The messages were repeated in Thai, English and Chinese.

But Thailand’s new normal is instability. The junta has so many enemies that it spent the week rolling out what seemed to be a fresh theory every day about who might be behind the attack.

Was it the Red Shirts, striking out at the junta hours after Ms. Yingluck had condemned a proposed new military-written constitution — which would create an army-dominated “crisis committee” with the power to overrule elected governments and call security forces into the streets – as undemocratic?

Was it the southern separatists, striking at Bangkok to raise their international profile? Was it an international network, taking advantage of the country’s light security and visitor-friendly visa policies to target foreigners? Cynics wondered whether a faction of the junta, anxious to prove the necessity of its crisis committee, might be involved.

Eventually, the investigation narrowed to focus on an unidentified young man who was captured on closed-circuit television leaving his backpack at the bomb site. But details remained scarce. “He didn’t do it alone, for sure,” national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung said of the backpack bomber, adding that the suspect might have been wearing a disguise. “It’s a network. I believe there are some Thais involved.”

Mr. Somyot suggested on Wednesday that the attack could have been carried out by Uighur separatists, a Muslim group straining against Chinese rule over the far west Xinjiang region of China. As Beijing has tightened the screws in Xinjiang, Uighurs have been blamed for a series of bloody attacks, both in Xinjiang and in larger Chinese cities.

Uighur groups could also be forgiven for harbouring a grudge against the Thai government, after the junta deported more than 100 Uighurs to China last month, ignoring concerns from human-rights groups that they were likely to be subjected to torture. But the Uighur theory – which was never supported by any publicly available evidence – was ruled out on Thursday by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the general who led last year’s military takeover.

Police were left making two seemingly contradictory statements about the investigation: The main suspect was a foreigner and part of a “network.” But in a television broadcast on Thursday that was likely meant to reassure, though it served mostly to confuse, junta spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree said the attack was “unlikely to be linked to international terrorism.”

A clearly frustrated Gen. Prayut was left suggesting that police investigators should spend more time watching the American crime drama Blue Bloods for “tips, ideas and insights for their case.” But Gen. Prayut, a known cinephile, also lamented that “our officers may not be as good as those in the series.”

Even the normally placid Thai media, which largely supported the return of military rule, has become openly anxious about the pace of the investigation. “Authorities must dig deeply and fast to discover who is behind the bomb blast,” read an editorial in the English-language Bangkok Post. “It is the bare necessity and the first step toward healing the deep wounds of Monday night.”

Any lingering suggestion that tourists might not be safe in Thailand could have massive implications for the economy, which had already been slowing. Rising tourism numbers had been buffering the country against declining exports; if the sector starts to contract significantly, the junta’s popularity could suffer with it.

And so, even as the bumbling manhunt continued, the generals decided to make sure the country returned as quickly as possible to looking like the Thailand that tourists expect. Local newspapers were full of reports about additional security at tourist sites, but there was little additional police or military presence visible in the city. The apparent calm delivered the same message as the junta’s broadcasts: There’s nothing to see here. The situation has returned to normal.

The Erawan Shrine itself reopened on Wednesday, less than 48 hours after the attack. Though still a crime scene, the divot in the ground caused by the explosive was filled with fresh concrete. Not all the scars could be covered so quickly: Some of the green tiles on the roof of the temple building remain damaged, and an advertisement for Alexander McQueen clothing on the side of an adjacent mall was missing an “M” and an “e,” torn off by the force of Monday’s blast.

One of Brahma’s four faces was missing part of its chin, but the statue nonetheless sparkled in the hot August sun. Tourists and mourners returned to lay flowers and handwritten condolences. Thai newspapers reported that only a handful of tourists had cancelled their plans.

The bombing remains unsolved and the suspects are still at large, but Thailand is putting its “land of smiles” mask back on. The question is whether it still fits.

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