By Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Thai police detained two men from the insurgency-stricken Deep South the night before a series of small bombs rocked Bangkok on Friday, when top diplomats from the United States, China and other world powers were in the Thai capital for security talks.
Police said the men were arrested in southern Thailand on Thursday as they were returning from a trip to Bangkok – before nine bombs exploded in five locations on Friday. They did not directly link the men to the blasts, which injured four people.
The Royal Thai Army commander in chief, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, said police detained the men in Chum Phon province after they were identified through surveillance video. He did not say why they were held.
Asked whether the two were linked to the bombings, he said, “In regard to the suspects, it does not matter if Deep South men were involved in the bombings, the kingpin remains out there.”
The blasts were the first in the Thai capital in more than two years.
Apirat did not identify the men, who were picked up after police found a box containing an electric circuit and ball bearings but no explosive materials outside the National Police Bureau in the Thai capital on Thursday.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who retained his post after a controversial March election returned his junta to power as a civilian government, blamed the bombings on “a group of ill-intended people [who] have recently incited violence while the government is propelling the country forward,” according to his office.
He said the blasts were an attempt to ruin a series of meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which drew US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and top diplomats from more than 30 countries.
Answering a media question whether the explosions were aimed at disrupting the ASEAN meetings, Prayuth said, “Certainly yes.”
“So we should not let them succeed with their objective,” he said during a visit to the police headquarters near the venue of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting on Friday.
A woman claiming to be a relative of one of the two arrested men said they were from Narathiwat and had been in Bangkok but were not involved in the bombings. The woman who asked not to be identified because of privacy concerns said authorities searched her home Thursday after the men were detained.
“I don’t believe they took part in the explosions,” she told BenarNews. “They went to Bangkok to sight-see. I was startled when officials came and searched my home.”
The Thai military has been in charge of security for 15 years in the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South after a separatist insurgent uprising re-ignited in 2004. About 7,000 people have been killed since then in violence in the region.
Zachary Abuza, a security analyst specializing in Southeast Asia, said he did not believe those responsible for Friday’s bombings in Bangkok were linked to the insurgency in the Deep South.
The blasts “have no ties to the insurgency in the #DeepSouth, that has its very own bombings,” he tweeted. There were 11 incidents of violence in the Deep South in July, leaving 9 dead and 21 wounded, he noted.
As of late Friday (local time), no one had claimed responsibility for the bombs.
Explosions began at 9 a.m.
Prayuth said the blasts began at 9 a.m. and through the afternoon. None of the injuries sustained by the four were life threatening but two of the victims were hospitalized, according to officials.
The first bomb exploded on Rama 9 road, injuring three janitors. Later, two bombs exploded at Chong Non Tree electric train station, injuring another. The rest went off in other locations, including near the Chaeng Wattana government complex and the Defense Secretariat Office, officials said.
Throughout the day, explosive ordnance disposal units rushed to investigate reports of additional bombs – which turned out to be false – while security officers were on alert around the venue of the ASEAN meetings and at department stores and tourist attractions around Bangkok.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement warning citizens traveling in or residing in Thailand to remain vigilant and “pay close attention to personal safety at all times.”
Previous Bangkok attacks
Roadside bombings and other attacks by insurgents occur often in the Deep South, but are far less frequent in Thailand’s capital.
A pipe bomb packed with TNT exploded at the Erawan Shrine during rush hour in central Bangkok on Aug. 17, 2015, killing 20 and injuring more than 125 people.
The Hindu shrine, a popular spot for tourists and local people in the heart of Bangkok’s tourist district and which is surrounded by shopping malls and upscale hotels, reopened two days after the attack.
On April 5, 2017, two women were injured when a pipe bomb blew up near Bangkok’s Grand Palace and Monument of Democracy.
About six weeks later, on May 22, 2017, a retired engineer set off a pipe bomb that injured 21 people at a Bangkok military hospital. The explosion occurred on the third anniversary of a military coup that overthrew the democratic government of Yingluck Shinawatra. The suspect, Watana Pumret, was sentenced to 31 years in prison.