Who Was Really Behind the Bangkok Bombing?

Erawan shrine bombing
People ride their motorcycles past a digital billboard showing a sketch of the main suspect in the attack on Erawan shrine, in Bangkok. Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters

This article was first published on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Over the past several days, Thai police have made arrests in the Erawan Shrine bombing case and publicly identified other suspects still at large.

Although after the bombing there were many theories about the culprits, the two men arrested and the suspects identified could have some link to Turkey or to the Uighurs.

One man arrested in a Bangkok suburb reportedly possessed hundreds of passports, including one identifying him as Turkish, though it remains unclear whether he is actually Turkish; another man arrested near Thailand's eastern border also appears to be either Uighur or have links to the Uighurs and potentially to Turkey.

Thai media have identified the man arrested in eastern Thailand as Yusufu Mieraili, 25, from Xinjiang province. One of the identified suspects at large, a woman from southern Thailand, reportedly is now living in Turkey. Thai police also reportedly are looking for other suspects of Turkish nationality.

What is the connection between the suspects, Turkey, the Uighurs and violence in Thailand? Longtime Southeast Asia security analyst Anthony Davis, who writes for the Jane's group of publications, was probably the first to speculate, last week, that Turkish nationalists could have committed the shrine attack as retribution for Thailand's deportation of over 100 Uighurs to China in July; the shrine was popular with Chinese tourists. Shortly following the deportation, protesters attacked the Thai consulate in Istanbul, forcing it to close for a time.

Turkey long has had close cultural ties with the Uighurs, who are a Turkic people and speak a Turkic language; the cause of the Uighurs has been adopted, in the past, by some Turkish military leaders, as well as some of Turkey's more nationalist groups.

Did one of the most infamous ultra-nationalist groups, Turkey's so-called Grey Wolves, plan the Bangkok bombing as retribution for the deportation? Did another group of Turkish nationalists plan the attack, working with Thais and/or possibly Uighurs? Have Uighur militants taken their battle global, and should countries be prepared for Uighurs attacking Chinese citizens throughout Asia?

Earlier in the investigation, Thai leaders pointedly dismissed any possibility that Uighurs or Uighur sympathizers were behind the shrine bombing, as part of an overall campaign by the ruling Thai junta to play down the international angle of the attacks and generally to reassure the public. (The junta also initially seemed to suggest that anti-government protesters could be behind the bombing.)

Thailand's tourism industry is a critical foundation of the economy, which is probably a major reason why the junta hopes to play down any threat of international terrorism in Thailand. The junta also clearly desires to show that it is managing the hunt effectively and is capable of restoring law and order in the capital.

According to The New York Times, Thai leaders have ordered government officials to call the attack a "disturbance," and ordered all government agencies "to avoid using the terms terrorism or sabotage." The Thai Interior Ministry, according to the Times, also instructed officials to avoid "mentioning any connection to Uighurs in this incident as it could create problems and have an international impact."

Many Thai leaders also continue to stress that, despite the potential links to Turkey or to the Uighurs, the bombers committed the act out of what the Thai government has called personal motives or "personal revenge," according to Thailand's police chief, who has suggested that the bombers were attacking the target in response to a crackdown on their people-smuggling operation.

However, Thai leaders have kept the wording of their statements vague enough that they might mean the bombers were personally motivated by their rage at the treatment of Uighurs, rather than that the bombers attacked because of anger against one or two other people. If the bombers attacked because they, personally, were infuriated by the treatment of Uighurs, it is hard to understand what the difference is between this kind of "personal" anger and the use of a terrorist attack to express political grievances.

The list of suspects now strongly suggests some links to Turkey and to the Uighurs. At some point soon, the Thai government will have to be more forthright about the investigation if it wants Thais, and the international community, to trust the information it does release.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Who Was Really Behind the Bangkok Bombing? | Opinion
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