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Bangkok bombing: Here is a basic primer on terrorism in Thailand

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. Early on Monday, a bomb exploded outside the Erawan shrine in downtown Bangkok. A number of people were killed — current counts range from 16 to 27 — and about 80 were wounded.
  2. The Erawan shrine is technically Hindu, but is also popular with Thailand's Buddhist majority, as well as with tourists. That makes figuring out the motivation behind the attack tricky.
  3. So far, no group has taken responsibility for the bombing. There have been some bombings in Bangkok linked to tensions surrounding a 2014 military coup, but there's no evidence as of yet that this attack is related.
  4. Thailand also has an active, violent Malay-Muslim insurgency in the country's south — but it's hard to say whether they'd be willing to launch this kind of attack.

What we know about the bombing and terrorism in Thailand

bangkok bombing

A police officer stands at the site of the Bangkok bombing. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images)

  • According to Thai police, the device was a pipe bomb.
  • Possibly two or more other bombs were found nearby.
  • Thai authorities currently believe the goal of the attack was to target Thailand's tourism industry. "The perpetrators intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district," Prawit Wongsuwan, Thailand's defense minister, told Reuters.
  • Though the Erawan shrine is dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma, in practice it's not quite a shrine for Hindus. Thailand often builds shrines outside commercial buildings as a means of connecting commerce with sacred values; these shrines are meant to have social rather than sectarian value.
  • Erawan, built in 1956, is the "best known" of these commercial shrines, Duke University's Ara Wilson has written. Anthropologist Charles Keyes calls it "the shrine of Bangkok" for its local importance.
  • Thailand is currently ruled by a military coup government, a source of political tension that has at times included small-scale bombings. Last May, the Thai military overthrew Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup, outraging Shinawatra's supporters. Tensions over control of the Thai government have resulted in terrorist attacks in Bangkok before.
  • In March 2015, two men supporting Shinawatra threw a grenade at the Criminal Court in Bangkok; according to the police, Shinawatra supporters were planning to target "100 targets" in Bangkok. But it's tough to know how seriously to take this — the coup government has an incentive to portray opponents as terrorists.
  • There is also a separatist conflict in Thailand's south. That movement has been active since 2004, led by ethnic Malays who are predominantly Muslim. About 6,400 people have been killed over the course of the conflict, and the past several months have seen an uptick in insurgent activity.
  • We should be skeptical about seeing the separatists as religious extremist violence, though. Despite fears about the "Islamization" of the war, the insurgency so far has not appeared motivated by religion. "The conflict remains dominated by conservative Sha'afi clerics, who see themselves as the guardians of traditional Malay culture, and a bulwark against Thai colonialism and cultural influence," Zachary Abuza, an expert on security in Southeast Asia, has written.
  • Moreover, the insurgents tend to operate in southern Thailand — attacks in places like Bangkok are pretty rare. To give you a sense of scale, here's how long it would take to get from Bangkok to Yala, a southern province and an insurgent hotbed:

thailand yala bangkok

(Google Maps)

  • However, there are some concerns that younger insurgents could be attracted to ISIS propaganda, and that some commanders might want to escalate attacks against civilians. "More hard-line commanders may be insisting that [terrorist attacks] are necessary to take the insurgency to the next level or force the Thai side to talks," Abuza writes.
  • Bottom line: While people are naturally reacting to this attack by wondering if the Malay insurgency based in Thailand's south could be involved, we just don't yet know that this is the case. Nor do we know if there are any links between the attack and persistent anger at Thailand's coup.

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