BANGKOK — Just over a month after a deadly bombing in the heart of Bangkok, government officials think they have their man. But questions still surround the strike, from the motive to what the attack says about Thailand’s tangled ties with China and its handling of ethnic Uighur Muslims whom Beijing sees as violent separatists.
Investigators from Thailand, China, Turkey, Malaysia, Bangladesh and other countries are grimly investigating how a group of Uighurs, allegedly traveling on Turkish and Chinese passports, enabled an unidentified man to explode a pipe bomb on Aug. 17 at a Hindu shrine in Bangkok crowded with mostly ethnic Chinese visitors.
Uighurs and their supporters may have bombed the shrine as revenge for the Thai government’s mass deportation in July, and Thailand’s earlier crackdown on human smuggling routes which were helping China’s distressed Uighurs and other refugees find sanctuary abroad — although no group has claimed responsibility for the bloodiest bombing in the Thai capital since World War II.
“It was because Thai authorities destroyed the illegal businesses of a transnational human trafficking network. They were obstructed, so they were angry,” Thailand’s National Police Chief Somyot Pumpanmuang said last week. “The other issue was the Thai authorities’ decision to send 109 Uighurs back to China.”
Police have issued wanted posters for most of their 25 suspects, illustrated with closed-circuit TV photos, passport pictures, photographs of people arriving or departing through Bangkok’s international airport, and rough sketches based on witnesses’ recollections.
The man caught on security video in a distinctive yellow shirt remains unidentified. He appears on CCTV video depositing a black backpack at the Erawan Shrine, walking away minutes before the explosion, and then disappearing as a passenger on a motorcycle taxi.
One break came when Yusufu Mieraili, apparently a Uighur from China’s Xinjiang province, was arrested trying to cross Thailand’s border into Cambodia days after the blast. Under interrogation, he allegedly “confessed” to giving the bomb-laden backpack to the man in the yellow T-shirt on the day of the attack, and has been charged with possessing explosives.
Security forces said Mr. Mieraili confessed after they presented evidence against him, because he wanted to be prosecuted in Thailand rather than China — apparently fearing Beijing’s punishment would be worse.
But the monthlong investigation by police and military officials has appeared haphazard and intentionally deceptive at times and has become another political black eye for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power as army chief in a 2014 coup.
The prime minister repeatedly rejected clues and speculation linking the attack to Uighurs, China, Turkey, international terrorism or revenge for his deportation order, which was condemned by the U.S. State Department, the United Nations and human rights organizations. Many of the regime’s statements on the probe were frequently contradicted hours later, and some facts officially denied until different officials leaked the information or confirmed key details.
Most of China’s Uighurs live in western Xinjiang province in and around the rugged Takliman Desert, along the ancient Silk Road caravan route which Marco Polo traversed in the 13th century. During the 1930s, both Beijing and London feared Moscow wanted to seize Xinjiang, which Russia’s political supporters were infiltrating.
Since then, Beijing moved millions of ethnic Han Chinese into Xinjiang to form a majority against the Muslims there, and exploit the zone’s minerals, petroleum and other natural resources, causing intense resentment from the native Uighurs, who speak a language related to Turkish.
Suffering under China’s discriminatory regulations and treatment — forbidding long beards on men or face veils on women — many Uighurs aspire to escape to Turkey or other Turkic-speaking communities.
Thailand became caught in the crossfire when the government agreed to send some 109 Uighurs in the country back to China earlier this year at Beijing’s request, amid an ongoing crackdown on Uighur unrest there. The move came despite opposition from human rights groups and many Western governments, along with a violent protest outside the Thai consulate in Turkey.
The bombing and the troubled investigation have posed a dilemma for Mr. Prayuth, especially if it proves the bombing was directly related to the Uighur deportations.
The government is “in a tough spot because if it admits to the mistake of sending, deporting the Uighur it means it has come too close to China because China has recognized the military coup last year,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, told the Voice of America in an interview late last week.
“At the same the government does not want to go too far in admitting that a bomb attack was a terrorist operation because Thailand relies on tourism,” he said.