Thailand treading diplomatic tightrope in bomb probe

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Junta has named Chinese, Thai and Turkish nationalities in bombing investigation, but communication has been brief

By Max Constant

BANGKOK – With at least two countries outside of Thailand connected by citizenship to the Aug. 17 Bangkok bombing, the junta has been treading a diplomatic tightrope in pursuing the investigation in earnest while avoiding the involvement of governments overseas.

Police spokesman Gen. Prawut Thavornsiri stated last week that the blast in which 20 people lost their lives — six of them Chinese nationals — is not related to “international terrorism,” but rather to “people smuggling”.

“We have agreed already that I won’t mention the name of a country, the name of a group or their religion. Please allow me to say that it is a network, and let’s wait and see which group it is,” he added

As of Friday, 13 arrest warrants had been issued for an array of suspects with Chinese, Thai and Turkish nationalities, while those in detention are a southern Thai national, a Turkic man from China’s northwest region of Xinjiang, and the first person arrested in the case — a man travelling on a fake Turkish passport whose nationality is yet to be determined.

Turkish authorities in Ankara have told Anadolu Agency that despite appealing to Thai officials for information on the arrest — given the suspects use of obviously forged Turkish travel documents — they received no response.

The source — who was not named according to Foreign Ministry protocol — said that Turkey was then left with little option but to seek the help of international criminal police organization Interpol in reaching Thai authorities.

Wednesday saw China’s state-run publication the Global Times link the blast to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, ending a period in which Beijing media have downplayed the incident due to suspected links with the Xinjiang Muslim minority.

The movement was founded by members of the Turkic-speaking ethnic Uighur majority in Xinjiang, from where it is seeking an independent state. 

In July, Bangkok deported 109 Uighur to China from a group of around 350 who were being held in Thai immigration centers.

Around 180 others were earlier sent to Turkey, which welcomes the Uighur as its own as they are among a number of Turkic tribes that inhabit the region of Xinjiang and surrounding areas that many Turks call East Turkestan and consider to be part of Central Asia, not China.

The deportation to China — which separated husbands from wives and fathers and mothers from children — led to a chorus of protests from International Organizations and foreign governments.

Anger at Thailand’s move was none more fervent than in Turkey, where a group of people, among them members of a pro-Uighur organization, ransacked the Thai consulate in Istanbul on hearing of the move.

Given that background, some in Turkey could well see those smuggling Uighur — and even those planting the bomb — as political, not criminal.

Thai authorities have been wary of publicly establishing a connection between the deportations and the bombing.

The South China Morning Post — which many Hong Kongers see as having to toe Beijing lines — reported Wednesday that Chinese journalists from three mainland news organisations had said that they had been told not to follow up on developments in the story, due to sensitivities surrounding the Uighur issue.

Meanwhile, a third and fourth country wait in the wings — Bangladesh, where the suspected mastermind of the attack — another Xinjiang born Chinese man — is said to have flown to on leaving Bangkok, and Malaysia, where the Bangkok Post reported Friday that a bombing suspect of unnamed nationality had sneaked into through Thailand’s southern border.

The Post quoted an unnamed source as saying that the man was likely to be the yellow-shirted suspect seen planting a backpack believed to contain the bomb at the Erawan Shrine shortly before the deadly blast.

While China had said nothing publicly on the involvement of those with suspected Chinese citizenship, diplomatic sources have told Anadolu Agency that Beijing has been heavily involved in the investigation from the off.

A high ranking foreign diplomat based in Thailand told Anadolu Agency on Thursday that in the aftermath of the bombing China immediately offered technical assistance to the Thai police.

“That is how the Thai police could sift through the phone calls and arrest the first suspect on August 29,” the man — who did not wish to be named due to the sensitivity of the case — claimed.

He also underlined the role of Chinese social networks in the investigation, which were quickly filled with comments blaming Uighur “terrorists” in the bombing’s wake.

Thai authorities gave priority to this hypothesis from the beginning, he said. They didn’t want to declare it publicly for fear of involving other countries. 

Last week, the Turkish embassy in Thailand said it had yet to be officially notified of the arrest warrants for two of its citizens, even though they had been issued by Bangkok.

Ambassador Osman Bulent said the embassy had asked for clarification from the Thai Foreign Ministry on the issue and was still “waiting for an official reply”.

“There are also certain press reports with regard to arrest warrants having been issued for certain Turkish nationals. Up to now this Embassy has not received any official notification from the Thai authorities concerning the arrest warrants,” he added.

Diplomatic protocol dictates that when arrest warrants are issued by one country concerning another’s citizens, the second country is immediately alerted, however in this instance this appears not to have been the case.

But while the reluctance of Thai authorities to name certain countries could be appreciated as a gesture of discretion, omitting to warn the Turkish embassy when arrest warrants were issued against its citizen is a diplomatic faux pas, the foreign embassy official said.

“There is a clear disconnection between the Thai junta and the Thai Foreign Ministry. The voice of the foreign ministry is not heard,” he claimed.

He underlined that the Thai Foreign Ministry has a long established tradition of deft diplomacy and successful balance in its relations with other countries, but since last year’s military coup he said it has has adopted dysfunctional qualities.

He highlighted that four days after the bombing the junta replaced its foreign minister — Commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces Gen. Tanasak Patimapragorn — with Don Pramudwinai, a seasoned bureaucrat.

The source said that Pramudwinai — despite his vast experience — is yet to consolidate his role in the government apparatus.

“Things are still not into place. There is a gap,” claimed the diplomat.

Thailand has now requested the help of Interpol in locating two of the suspects. 

The first is the “yellow shirted” man thought to be in Malaysia, and the second is the suspected mastermind — believed to have fled to Bangladesh — against whom a warrant was delivered Tuesday.

Also wanted is a Thai Muslim woman and her Turkish husband who rented an apartment in an eastern Bangkok suburb where bomb-making materials were found.

She has told media that she is in Kayseri, in central Turkey, although Turkish authorities are yet to comment if she has even passed through border controls.

Typically, if Interpol considers the assistance requests legitimate, it will ask the national police of the countries where the suspects reside to intervene.

Bangladesh and Malaysia have extradition treaties with Thailand, as does China — although given that Thailand succumbed to China’s demands that it repatriate 109 Uighur state media referred to as “terrorists” it is unlikely to return to Bangkok any found to be on Thailand’s wanted list.

Turkey has no such treaty with Thailand.

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