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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Potential Suspects Identified in Thai Blast

(WSJ) Thailand's government on Tuesday said it found a number of potential suspects in security-camera images of the bomb blast that killed at least 20 people including several foreigners in the Thai capital the night before.

Residents and visitors were also rattled by another smaller blast Tuesday afternoon when an explosive device was thrown from a bridge toward a busy pier, but fell into the Chao Phraya River, where it exploded with no injuries, police said.

"Today we have seen the closed-circuit footage," Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters, referring to Monday's blast. "We saw some suspects, but it wasn't clear. We need to find them first."

Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy prime minister and defense minister, said that investigators would have a clearer idea of who the suspects might be after reviewing the footage. Thailand's top police chief earlier said the bomb was designed and timed to cause maximum loss of life.

He also said that Thai authorities had no prior intelligence about the attack. No one has claimed responsibility for the blast.

In one CCTV clip replayed on Thai television, a man of Middle Eastern or Caucasian appearance entered the Erawan Shrine where the blast occurred with a backpack. The footage appeared to show him leaving shortly after without the bag. It wasn't clear whether this is one of the images that has caught the interest of investigators, but speculation over who might have planted the bomb is rising.

Gen. Prayuth refused to answer questions on whether the probe is examining whether ethnic-Uighurs or their sympathizers were involved. Some 100 of the Turkic Muslim group were deported by Thai authorities to China last month, causing a political uproar. In recent years, hundreds of them have fled China to try to get to Turkey via Thailand, Malaysia or other countries to escape what they say is persecution and widespread discrimination.

Predominantly Buddhist Thailand is also home to long-running insurgency in its Muslim-majority southern provinces that has claimed thousands of lives over the past decade. Small-scale bomb attacks are frequent occurrences in the region.

Attention is turning to Thailand's other political disputes, too, notably the long-standing friction between supporters and opponents of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a military coup in 2006. Clashes between the two factions paralyzed Bangkok in the run up to another military coup last year, and caused around two dozen deaths.

Meanwhile, the roads remained closed around the shrine where the bomb exploded, as concerns grew over the country's important tourism industry.

The hospitality business is one of the few sectors showing growth this year, as sluggish exports and private consumption weigh down the rest of the economy. MasterCard forecast that only London would receive more foreign visitors than Bangkok this year.

In particular, the country has benefited in recent years from an influx of tourists from China. 

Monday's bombing killed four people from China, including two from Hong Kong, according to Xinhua, China's state news agency. Hong Kong and Singapore issued travel advisories recommending that travelers cancel nonessential trips to Bangkok.

Ittirat Kinglake, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand, said some visitors had canceled trips to Thailand. "There could be some effect, but only in the short term," he said, adding that under normal circumstances, Thailand could attract as many as 29 million visitors this year, a record. "We will have to re-evaluate the number."

The government previously estimated that 28 million people would visit the country this year, generating an expected $61 billion in revenue. On Monday night, Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan accused whoever planted the bomb of striking what he described as an economic target. He vowed to step up security to protect foreign visitors. Many of the buildings in the area deployed security guards to search the bags of people entering.

The attack has also had a profound effect on many Thais who flock to the Erawan Shrine, which is regarded as an important spiritual site here.

"I've never seen anything like this before. I didn't believe it could happen at the shrine," said Supanee Wattanawijarn, an executive at a foundation that helps manage the site. "I'm very worried."

The Shrine was first built in the 1950s to appease spirits which some Thais believe were disturbed by the construction of a nearby hotel. An astrologer advised that the shrine be built and it quickly developed a reputation for granting petitioners' prayers. When a mentally ill man attacked the four-faced statue of Brahma in March 2006, he was chased by nearby people and was beaten to death.

A new statue was unveiled at the same site on May 21, 2006 at exactly 11:39 a.m., when the sun was directly above the shrine. It survived Monday's blast with only slight damage to one of its chins.

Normally the intersection next to the Erawan Shrine is one of the busiest junctions in Bangkok. 

Several five-star hotels are in the area along, with glitzy shopping malls and boutiques selling designer clothes from Alexander McQueen. At the shrine itself, a depiction of the Hindu deity Brahma, ethnic Chinese visitors and local Thai Buddhists often line up to light sticks of incense. 

Some pay for Thai dancers dressed in traditional costumes to perform in front of the shrine if their prayers are answered.

But early Tuesday, the area was cordoned off as police continued to search for clues about who was responsible for planting the bomb, which has revived fears of a resurgence of the political violence that has flared periodically in Thailand in recent years, culminating in a military coup last year.

The strength of the blast charred much of the area, mangling the wrought-iron gates to the shrine and destroying several motorcycles and other vehicles caught in the blast zone. Security forces placed white cloth over some of the body parts that had been thrown by the blast. In addition to 20 people so far confirmed by authorities to have been killed, more than 120 people were injured, including many foreign tourists. Hospitals issued appeals for Chinese speakers to assist with translation.

Simone Chia, a businessman from Malaysia, said he heard about the blast during dinner on Monday evening. "It's a great pity," he said near the scene of the explosion on Tuesday morning. "This place is full of people from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and, I believe, Singapore. I believe most of the people wounded would be tourists. It's very sad. Thailand used to be a very safe place for tourists but now I don't know."

Another visitor, Tsai Yuefu from Taiwan, said he didn't understand what was happening. "I was a little bit shocked and feel very sorry for Bangkok and its people," Mr. Tsai said. "I hope the police and Thailand's government will make this situation safe for every tourist."

Source: Wall Street Journal by James Hookway

from China Travel & Tourism News


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