By Philipp Harnik, an Austrian second-year Liberal Arts student majoring in International Relations at King’s College London. He is currently interning for a company in Bangkok and has visited the two bomb sites both before and after the attacks. Phil also acts as the current president of the Public Affairs and Communications society at King’s.
On Monday, 17 August, at around 7pm, a gigantic blast could be heard resonating through the streets around Bangkok’s busy Ratchaprasong intersection and beyond. For a brief moment time stood still as people far enough away from the Erawan shrine not to get hurt from the impact turned their heads in shock, perplexed as to where the sound was co
As soon as the initial shockwave had passed, human moans could be discerned from among the hustle and bustle of the city. Initial awe turned into agony and distress as news of a bomb attack started spreading. This was soon followed by the first rumours of casualties with international media outlets reporting fatalities ranging from merely a single digit number to a few dozen with many more injured. It didn’t take long for graphic images of human body parts scattered on the street to appear all over social media and on the news. Speculation about the reasons behind the attack were made a long time before the last victims were rushed off to hospital and it also emerged that two more bombs around the area had been found and defused.
A day later, word got around of another bomb. This time, as can clearly be seen on CCTV footage released by the police, the bomb was thrown off a bridge at Sathon Pier on the Chao Phraya river, which serves as a busy jetty for ferries and boats catering mainly to tourists, transporting them to popular sights such as the Grand Palace, the Asiatique night market and Kao San Road. Luckily, the bomb hit a pillar and diverted into the river where it detonated, causing a huge cascade of water splashing up to ten meters high into the air. Had the bomb hit its target, it would undoubtedly have resulted in many more deaths.
I am currently interning for a company here in Bangkok and have been at both of the aforementioned sights only days before the attacks took place. Fortunately for me, I was in my apartment at the time of the first attack and received my earliest updates of what had happened through concerned messages and emails of friends and family, both from Bangkok and further afield. As I got on my phone to check the news for a more detailed overview of what had really happened I started to realise the full dimension of the attack and its tremendous impact on the political and socio-economic environment not only here in Thailand but worldwide.
At a time where hardly a single day passes without new reports of assaults perpetrated by the likes of Daesh and its affiliates, fighting in India’s disputed Kashmir region or new transactions in the rebounding arms industry, all suggesting a global atmosphere of rising tensions, the attack in Thailand’s capital might at a first glance seem like just another act of cold-blooded brutality and violence. However, when taking a closer look the Bangkok case presents us with a highly intriguing event as Thailand, a largely Buddhist country, has never witnessed attacks on such a grand scale before in its recent history. The incumbent prime minister and leader of the military junta, Prayuth Chan-ocha has indeed termed the fatal bombing ‘the worst attack on Thailand ever’.
With the official numbers amounting to 20 deaths (of which 12 were foreigners) and 120 injured, and the chosen location for the attack being the Erawan shrine, which is highly frequented by both tourists and locals, it was quickly established and easily discernible that the sole aim of this attack was to mutilate and kill as many people as possible. Whether or not this atrocity was plotted and carried out by an individual or rather a whole network of radicals remains unclear, even though the government has stated it believes it to be ‘unlikely’ to have been the work of an international terror organisation, as these normally claim responsibility a short time after their attacks. Additionally, officials seem fairly confident in the assumption that the main suspect, who was captured on CCTV leaving behind a backpack underneath a bench where the bomb detonated minutes after, was not Thai. On the footage he can be seen with longish curly hair and a yellow T-shirt. This has opened the floor for numerous wild speculations and accusations.
As the initial shock and disbelief slowly gave way to a more factual and arguably more informed analysis of what had really happened and who the perpetrator(s) was/were, the first finger pointing started and various theories surfaced. Since around half of the reported fatalities were either mainland Chinese or Hong Kong nationals, the first theory goes that the attack was specifically targeting citizens from China. The alleged reason for this is last month’s forced deportation of more than 100 Uighurs, part of a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority from western China which had sought asylum in Thailand, which caused wide-ranging criticism.
Another theory holds that the attack was perpetrated by radical members of the red-shirt movement, who support the ousted Shintawara regime and are mainly made up of inhabitants of the rural areas of Thailand. Ever since the Bangkok riots that have kicked off in September 2006 and reoccurred on numerous occasions over the last few years, members of the red-shirt camp have been clashing with the more liberal and urban yellow-shirt camp which supports the opposition. During the clashes, several fatalities have been reported on both sides.
What appears to be the most likely motivation behind the attack, however, was to harm to the Thai economy, thereby not only harming the government but effectively the entire country and its people. With tourism making up roughly 16% of the country’s GDP of 12 trillion Thai Baht ($337Billion) it serves as a major source of income, providing work for many and boosting the Thai economy at a time of slumping exports. By trying to spread fear and a feeling of instability, tourists might think twice before booking their next flight tickets to Thailand, so the reasoning goes. Since the attacks, 23 embassies have issued travel warnings but the definite numbers of cancellations remain to be seen.
Whatever the reasons behind the Bangkok bombings might have been, the sheer brutality and dimension of the first one, and potentially also the second one, had it hit its target, suggest that the culprit(s) wanted to cause harm and spread terror, rather than just make a political statement. Otherwise a far less destructive, smaller explosive device, perhaps aimed at a military base or other official complexes, would have sufficed.
It is now crucial that the people of Thailand and from elsewhere don’t give in to these attempted scare tactics. Instead, there is a need to unite to fight violent radicalism together. No matter what one’s political orientation might be, what religious belief one might hold or what country one might identify with, we should never forget that we are all born under the same sun, as equals. And no matter how dissatisfied one might be with certain circumstances, arbitrary violence like it has occurred in the Bangkok bombings is absolutely inexcusable and should be condemned appropriately. What remains to be done is to stand tall and proud and show the perpetrator(s) of the Bangkok bombings as well as any other radicals who resort to taking lives in order to try to achieve their goals in these troublesome times, that their attempts will ultimately remain futile. By uniting to find and discuss solutions that serve the common good and not letting ourselves be governed by terror and fear, we will transcend their wickedness and fallacy.
Ps. Today, Monday the 24th a week after the initial attack, police claim to have found yet another bomb in one of Bangkok’s busiest roads, Sukumvit 83, but were able to deactivate it.