Around the time that I moved back to Bangkok in 2012 a C-4 bomb packed with ball bearings exploded on soi 71, a 10-minute taxi ride from my new apartment. It was February 14, and it seemed like a curious welcome. Since I had moved to Bangkok from the Middle East, the irony was not lost on me.
Five suspects were identified, all of Iranian nationality, having apparently detonated their own device by accident. It was a scene straight out of Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed.” They tried to flee on foot, but were cornered at the scene by Thai police. One of them, Saeid Moradi, first tried to flag a taxi but was turned down by the driver, aghast at the sight of so much blood. Moradi promptly threw a grenade into the car, badly injuring the driver. When the police arrived, Moradi threw a second grenade in their direction but, following the Buddhist laws of Karma, the grenade hit a tree, bounced back toward him, and blew his legs off.
Moradi was tried in a wheelchair. His accomplices were either caught at the airport trying to flee the country or arrested in Kuala Lumpur the following day. Two got away: Norouzi Shaya Ali Akbar is thought to have escaped to Iran, as did the lone woman terrorist Leila Rohani.
“There are many theories,” a government spokeswoman gallantly and vaguely declared a couple of weeks later. But no theory could deny the fact that all five suspects were operatives of the Iranian government, and that those who had returned to Iran would never face trial. The “investigation,” like the theories, came to nothing, and gradually — Thailand being Thailand — was forgotten altogether.
Officials later claimed that they had found no links to international terrorist or militant groups. Of course the Iranian government neither gave up the suspects nor admitted to any knowledge of connections to a prospective attack on the Israeli embassy in Bangkok or to actual attacks on Israeli embassy targets in India and Georgia. Thais, like most people, thrive on conspiracy theories, but eventually the chatter subsided and news of other, more humdrum domestic bombs aroused their appetite for gossip and speculation.
Reactions to last week’s bombings at the Erawan shrine seem destined to follow a similar pattern, though this time the targets were foreign tourists. The strange gilded figure of Brahma, originally built in 1956 to appease spirits disturbed by the building of a luxury hotel nearby, has become the spiritual and touristic heart of the city over the years — contradictory as those two things may be. Every other day I walk past the shrine on the Ratchaprasong skywalk, and pause for a moment to watch the dancers in their glittering spired headdresses.
Unable to admit that they don’t know anything — or that they know something too dire to tell — various official agencies have made contradictory statements in a desperate effort not to lose face. It’s important, after all, that they appear to be in control. For a military government in particular, control is crucial. But forensically, the situation does not look promising.
BBC News’ Southeast Asia correspondent Jonathan Head picked up fragments of ball bearings near the Erawan shrine and took them down to the local police station. He arrived after official working hours, and the station, he was told, was closed. Officials made statement after statement, each one more baffling than the last. All could have been supplanted by a simple: “We haven’t got a clue.”
Was the yellow-shirted suspect who got a ride on a motocy taxi to Lumpini Park a “foreigner,” as the driver claimed, or was he connected to the Red Shirts in the North-East? Was he an ethnic Uighur Muslim seeking revenge for the junta’s deportation of more than 100 Uighurs in early July? Bangkok is a crossroads for Uighurs making their way from China to Turkey and the Middle East, many of them radicalized. And who were the other 10 people suspected to be part of a “network”?
Ordinary Thais remain laconic, stoic and unfazed. The day after the bombing I went shopping at Gourmet Market in the luxury Emporium mall: not a trace of hysteria or anxiety. Shoppers were out in force with their babies, buying sushi grade tuna and Hokkaido lavender milk. Here, you put on a brave face — rather like the English do.
Last year, during the interminable but largely non-lethal protests that resulted in a takeover by the current military government, I was sitting in a restaurant near my house called The Local. An explosion rocked the silverware and made the windows shudder. It was almost comical. The waitresses looked around, smiled sweetly and shrugged with infinite unconcern. (It was later rumoured that someone had tossed a grenade into the house of former prime minister Abhisit Veijjajiva, who lives in the neighbourhood.) “Ra-beert,” they sighed. A bomb. No-one injured. Dessert served as usual.
But this week something has changed the equation.
As pundits tirelessly point out, Thailand has known political violence before. In 2010, 90 people were shot dead during clashes between the army and Red Shirts next to Erawan shrine. A handful of people also died last year during political riots. In February two pipe bombs went off at a luxury shopping mall next to the Ratchaprasong skywalk. So we know that this peculiar junction is popular with extremists of various hues. For years now, residents have dreaded the spread of the southern Muslim insurgency to the capital. It hasn’t happened. The bombs have mainly stayed in Hat Yai, and the preferred method of cold-blooded murder in those restive provinces has remained the humble bullet.
Yet the destruction of a revered shrine, and the carnage caused inside, is indeed something new. Would Buddhists, even die-hard Red Shirts, do such a thing? It seems unlikely. The destruction of shrines and killing of tourists has for the most part been restricted to a particular group of international terrorists, whose involvement the government seems anxious to exclude. Government spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree firmly declared that the bombing was “unlikely” to be connected to international terrorist groups. If this statement turns out to be false, don’t expect anyone to actually admit it.
This article originally appeared on Politico.