- - Monday, August 24, 2015

BANGKOK — The garish, multistory Nana Entertainment Zone is a cul-de-sac best known for its sensational striptease bars, nude lesbian transsexual clubs and illicit prostitution.

It is not typically a place where one would expect to find the national police chief, assuring the foreign men drinking beer at a bar beside dolled-up Thai women that they had no need to worry for their safety.

But that’s where National Police Chief Somyot Pumpanmuang and his uniformed officers were to be found Saturday night, part of a governmentwide effort at damage control five nights after a pipe bomb killed 20 people and wounded more than 100 at a popular nearby religious shrine.

With tourism a major part of the Thai economy, the embattled government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has mobilized to try to address security fears, meeting with foreign tourists and assuring international diplomats that their embassies, staff, commercial interests and citizens would be protected.

But with the bomber still at large and investigators unable to answer many basic questions about how and why the attack was carried out, Mr. Prayuth, who seized power in a military coup last year, and his government have been facing increased scrutiny and opposition.

The bomb at a popular Hindu shrine in what is known as “Bangkok’s Times Square” shattered the authoritarian government’s 15-month-long, expensive propaganda campaign, which boasted monotonously that Mr. Prayuth seized power to “return happiness to the people.”

Many among Thailand’s 66 million mostly Buddhist population already were ignoring Mr. Prayuth’s weekly lectures, which by law must be broadcast nationwide simultaneously on all domestic TV channels.

Immediately after the explosion of ball bearings, flames and shrapnel at the revered Erawan Shrine, many Thais went online, exchanging information and theories before the regime’s censors could catch up.

“If happiness couldn’t unite us, perhaps tragedy can,” wrote the Bangkok Post’s influential columnist Kong Rithdee.

The government hasn’t given up on the happy talk, even with no signs that the case will be cracked soon.

“The Thai government would like to send a message to all foreigners who plan to travel to Thailand for a visit — be it for tourism, business, education, a meeting, a seminar, a study tour, trade exhibition or any other purpose — that they can be sure of their safety during their stay in the country,” announced junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkammerd.

“As always, you will be greeted with Thai hospitality, Thai smiles and Thai hearts,” the spokesman said.

Prime minister absent

Mr. Prayuth’s behavior since the blast also has come in for sharp criticism. Critics say the prime minister has been mostly conspicuous by his absence and has yet to visit any of the more than 100 wounded survivors in Bangkok’s hospitals.

“Our prime minister — who says he is here to serve and bring about peace in this country — has failed to undertake a basic principle of being the leader of a nation,” wrote Asia Focus editor Umesh Pandey. “A visit by Gen. Prayuth would show he is more than a military general, but a human being as well.”

Mr. Prayuth also did not attend a cathartic multifaith prayer ceremony at the shrine on Aug. 21, arguing that his presence would have increased the security risk.

“I am not afraid of dying, but I am afraid others may die with me, as my risk is increasing by the day,” Mr. Prayuth said.

Others in his junta joined the public prayer ceremony alongside religious leaders and diplomats.

The campaign to catch the young man in the yellow shirt caught on a security camera leaving his backpack at the shrine has produced frustratingly few solid leads. The wanted poster of the unidentified “Bad Man” also depicted him in three other versions: without glasses, bald with glasses, and wearing a hat and glasses.

At one apartment building over the weekend, two plainclothes detectives politely questioned a 40-year-old unshaven German man who arrived in Thailand one day earlier to stay with friends.

“I heard about the bomb story, but I don’t know why they are questioning me,” the German said.

“We do not know the nationality of the bomber,” Detective Athiphat Thammasri said in a brief interview while photographing the German and his passport in the building’s parking lot where they stopped him. “We do not have a name either.”

Mr. Prayuth — who said Friday that he had turned down an offer of investigative help from the Obama administration — has suggested that Thailand’s senior police educate themselves about how to investigate the bombing by watching “Blue Bloods,” a fictional American crime series starring Tom Selleck about the New York Police Department.

“Police investigators, especially the national police chiefs, should watch this series,” Mr. Prayuth told journalists. “They will get tips, ideas and insights into their case.”

Thai investigators conceded Monday that one factor hampering their probe is that some 75 percent of the closed-circuit television cameras along the perpetrator’s getaway route were not functioning the day of the attack, and investigators were able to recover only fuzzy images of the bomber.

Pressured about what progress had been made in a week, Chief Somyot acknowledged to reporters Monday that basic questions about the bomber’s identity and whereabouts remained unknown.

Asked whether the bomber was still in Thailand, Chief Somyot said, “I don’t know.”

“I still believe he is in Thailand because I have no evidence to confirm otherwise,” he said, even though a police spokesman suggested over the weekend that the man may have left the country.

Some regime critics say the haphazard nature of the investigation is a symptom of deeper problems within the government.

“The host of contradictory statements emanating from police — and especially from the erratic and incompetent [Mr. Prayuth] — suggest severe internal disarray, making it unclear whether the perpetrators will ever be caught,” wrote Lee Jones, London University’s senior lecturer in international politics who recently authored a book about borderless threats and nontraditional security.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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