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Thailand's bombing investigation

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezAugust 20, 2015

Thailand has said no international terrorists are suspected of a deadly bombing in Bangkok, but that at least 10 plotters were likely involved. DW talks to analyst Kim McQuay on how the investigation is being conducted.

Thailand Anschlag in Bangkok Soldaten Sicherheitsmaßnahmen
Image: Getty Images/AFP/C. Archambault

This week's deadly bombing in Bangkok was "unlikely" to have been carried out by international suspects, said the Thai junta's military spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree, on Thursday August 20, adding that Chinese tourists, who were among the victims, were not the "direct target." However, Winthai failed to provide any details as to how authorities reached this conclusion. This has raised even more questions given that the police recently issued an arrest warrant for a prime suspect described as an unidentified "foreign" man.

The statement comes just three days after the Southeast Asian nation suffered the deadliest attack in its recent history, and the first in the capital, when a bomb exploded on Monday at the Erawan Shrine, a popular tourist site, killing 20 people and injuring more than 120. No one has claimed responsibility for the blast.

In a DW interview, Kim McQuay, The Asia Foundation's country representative to Thailand, shares his views on the Thai authorities' ongoing investigation and the possible consequences additional attacks could have on civil liberties in the Southeast Asian country.

The Asia Foundation - Kim Mc Quay
McQuay says he believes that authorities are conducting the investigation in a professional and disciplined mannerImage: The Asia Foundation

DW: How are Thai authorities going about the investigation into the recent deadly bombing?

Kim McQuay: On the basis of three days observation, my personal impression is that the Thai authorities are pursuing their investigation of the Erawan Shrine bombing and the second explosion at Sathorn Pier in a reasonably professional and disciplined manner.

A vicious act of terror that killed and injured Thai citizens and foreign visitors on this scale and in these circumstances assumes instant global profile, placing added pressure and expectations on national investigative authorities. Elements of the investigation have already been subject to criticism, including seeming contradictions among statements issued by different agencies and spokespersons in the last day.

All things considered, I believe the Thai authorities have been proceeding in a reasonably balanced and transparent manner, pursuing a variety of possible domestic and international bases of the attack, and avoiding undue conjecture. Where the investigation leads from here will be critically important in raising domestic and international confidence.

What can you tell us about the latest clues investigators have been able to find?

The first significant breakthrough in the investigation announced in the public domain was the release of the CCTV footage of a young man in a yellow shirt, who was recorded entering the Erawan Shrine, removing a backpack, placing it under a bench, and then leaving the shrine.

The location of the backpack corresponded with the bomb blast a few seconds later, and seems to provide conclusive evidence of the immediate sequence of events leading to the bombing. To this the authorities have added the possibility that the man with the backpack was assisted by two accomplices.

Thailand Polizei veröffentlicht Fahndungsbild nach Bombenanschlag
The authorities have released a composite sketch of the suspect based on grainy video footage, and stated their view that he is a foreignerImage: Twitter/Pol.Lt.Gen.Dr.Prawut

The authorities have released a composite sketch of the suspect based on the rather grainy video footage, and have stated their view that he is a foreigner and not Thai; that he may have been aided by a network of 10 or more local supporters; and that the bombing may be an act of organized crime.

It has been further reported that a local taxi driver picked up a passenger near the Erawan Shrine who fit the description of the man who placed the backpack, and that the man spoke in a foreign language on his mobile telephone en route to a drop point in nearby Lumpini Park.

To which extent are authorities engaging the general population in the search for the perpetrator?

For practical purposes, the release of the video footage of the suspected bomber amounts to a broad engagement of the general population in the investigation. The authorities have implicitly invited the population at large to review the footage and the images of the bombing suspect, and to share any information that might aid in identifying and apprehending him.

While the authorities are not providing significant detail, it is safe to assume that they will be conducting rigorous interviews of survivors and other eyewitnesses, and those who may come forward with further information about the bombing, those responsible, and their motive in carrying out the attack.

Thailand recently said international terror groups were likely not behind the shrine bombing. Why is that?

This announcement was made with little elaboration, save to note that unnamed "allies" with which Thailand is collaborating - presumably a reference to international security or investigative authorities - had reached a similar conclusion.

One could speculate on a number of possible reasons for this statement. First, Thailand has been fortunate to be spared international terrorist attacks of the kind to which some countries in the region have been exposed. While observers have pointed out that Thailand is vulnerable to international terrorism, no such attacks have occurred. The conclusion would thus be supported by experience to date.

Second, it is possible that the Thai authorities have more information in hand about the attack and its origins than they are publicly releasing, and that they have indeed definitively ruled out international terrorist group involvement.

Third, while the capacity of any individual or group to execute a deadly bomb attack is bound to raise concern, it is conceivable that Thai authorities are hoping to deflect the especially deep concern that would presumably be raised if international terrorism was counted among the most probable bases of the attack.

What can you tell us about the Thai authorities' capacity for forensic investigation and whether it has asked for foreign support?

In recent years, Thai police and military authorities and the Office of the Attorney General have made significant investments in developing the forensic investigative capacity of criminal justice officials and agencies, complemented by similar human resource development efforts on the part of university medical faculties and human rights organizations.

Even the print and broadcast media has invested in the development of specialty knowledge, and are now better equipped to thoughtfully report on criminal justice issues and the significance of forensic science. While capacity development is a work in progress, we can be confident that the Thai authorities will be applying their forensic investigative skills and techniques to good effect.

Statements by spokespersons of the military government intimate that the Thai authorities may already be consulting with international counterparts. This would be fully consistent with ongoing cooperation between the Government of Thailand and the international community on criminal justice and related matters.

Do you believe the Thai authorities will not only heighten security but also intensify their crackdown on civil liberties as a result of this security setback?

Having seized power through a coup with the declared objective of restoring public security, the government has had little patience for political or other criticism during its 15-month tenure. From the outset, it has taken measures to monitor and contain the media - prompting the media to largely self-censor - and to crack down hard on critics through measures that encroach on civil liberties.

Thailand Touristen nach Anschlag in Bangkok
If additional attacks of this kind occur, the government could indeed take tougher measures, says McQuayImage: Reuters/C. Subprasom

The government will naturally be very concerned about the bomb attack and its implications for international and domestic scrutiny and pressure, and can be expected to take all possible measures to follow-up and contain the risk of further violence.

It remains to be seen whether the bombing, its economic implications, and a challenging investigative follow-up will lead to greater restrictions than those presently in place. If, as is hoped, the bomb attack remains an isolated incident and the authorities make good progress in their investigation, raising domestic and international confidence, the risk of knock-on restrictions will be reduced. In the unfortunate event that additional attacks of this kind occur, the government could indeed take tougher measures.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation's country representative to Thailand.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.