Erawan bombing: Uyghurs, Turkey, & passports … or Thai human trafficking, corruption … and Uyghur patsies?

I’m still an agnostic on the Uyghurs dunnit theory, at least as far as the “aggrieved Uyghurs bombed the Erawan shrine to kill Chinese tourists in revenge for repatriation of Uyghurs to PRC” way.

The only things we know for sure right now is that: a) the Thai government is anxious to manage & control this story, b) the Thai police leaks like a sieve and c) one has to wonder if the government’s main priority is to put a pretty frame on this story and hang it up as soon as possible.

Suspect usufu Mieraili (right) is seen during a re-enactment of events leading up to bombing

Suspect Yusufu Mieraili (right) is seen during a re-enactment of events leading up to bombing

There appears to be a definite Uyghur element in the case, judging by the detentions of one suspect with a Uyghur name holding a PRC passport (that looks genuine) and another guy with a clumsily forged Turkish passport who, it is suspected, is probably a Uyghur.  Add to that a big stack of bogus Turkish passports — an inescapable element in the conveyor belt of PRC Uyghurs to havens in Turkey — and there’s the makings of a plausible Uyghur angle.

Under pressure from the PRC, the Thai government had indeed decided to crack down on human trafficking of Uyghurs through Thailand facilitated by bogus Turkish travel documents.

To reduce the attractiveness of Thailand as a refugee highway, the Thai government decided to repatriate 109 Uyghurs, mainly men but also including 24 women, to the PRC in July 2015.

In order to defuse the outrage of Uyghurs and their sympathizers, the Thai government made a deal with the Turkish government at the same time to send 170 Uyghurs, mainly women and children, to go on to Turkey.

This development went virtually unreported in the Turkish press, which is usually eager to trumpet the Turkish role as protector of the Uyghurs, which leads me to believe the release was soft-pedaled by prior agreement to avoid annoying the PRC.  Given this Turkish government involvement, I tend to discount theories attributing the attack to incensed Turkish hypernationalists a.k.a. The Grey Wolves.

Maybe the Thai government effort to take Thailand out of the Uyghur trafficking picture did not sit well with the Uyghur trafficking networks inside Thailand.  Judging from the people caught in the police dragnet, the traffickers seem to be staffed by Uyghur and Thai Muslims working out of some combination of profit and principle, and maybe they embarked upon a campaign of revenge.

But it seems to me more likely that the attack was linked to an overall crackdown on human trafficking, a business that implicates quite a few people in the Thai government and army.  Uyghurs, in my view, may have executed the bombings … and fulfilled an important role as convenient patsies.

For those of you who, like me, dwell in connect-the-dots-istan, here’s an interesting item from the Guardian from June 2015, in other words in the midst of the Uyghur repatriation effort and two months before the bombing:

Thailand’s state prosecutors are pressing charges against more than 100 people, including an army general, in a multinational human trafficking scandal that came to light after dozens of bodies were discovered in the south of the country earlier this year.

“The investigation showed it is a big syndicate. There were networks that brought them (the migrants) from overseas into the country systematically … The office of the attorney general, therefore, treats it as a very important case,” office spokesman Wanchai Roujanavong said.

The discovery has intensified international pressure on Thailand to crack down on smugglers. More than 50 people were arrested in a month, including local politicians, government officials, police, and a senior-ranking army officer who once oversaw human trafficking issues in the south.

Human rights groups have long accused Thai authorities of collusion in the trafficking industry, but officials have routinely denied the claims.

Apparently, “Thai authorities” included an army lieutenant general, Manas Kongpan, who was a kingpin in the south of Thailand, where most of the traffic (mainly of Bengalis and Rohingya to Malaysia) takes place.

The investigation was in the hands of the Thai police, which turned over its report to the Attorney General at the end of June.

Maybe the traffickers and their allies initiated a domestic terror campaign to punish and warn off the Thai government from prosecuting the case too aggressively.

This, to me, is a more convincing explanation of why the Erawan shrine was bombed than the “revenge on Chinese” angle.

If the intent was to kill Chinese tourists, why not bomb…Chinatown?  Why not a vicious attack on “the pilgrim filled Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Bangkok’s most important Chinese temple” as USA Today describes it? Or the Wat Traimit, “Chinatown’s number one attraction”?  For that matter, why not take a swing at the Chinese embassy?

Why set off a bomb near a Hindu shrine next to the Grand Hyatt?

After the bombing, there were several reports of unexploded devices at the scene.  If these reports are true (I haven’t seen any followup), it looks like the makings of a “double tap” attack: an initial device goes off, drawing in first responders including police, who are the targets of the secondary devices.

But even if the target of the attack wasn’t the Thai police, I think the target was still Thai, not Chinese: specifically, Thai tourism.  Counting indirect effects, tourism might make up as much of 20% of Thai GDP; a chunk of GDP that is extremely vulnerable to terrorism.

Understandable, then, that the Thai police would be most uninterested in publicly exploring this motive, and encouraging the narrative of an attack on Chinese by aggrieved Uyghurs instead.

The other troublesome issue for the official story, of course, is that nobody has taken credit for the bombing.  No aggrieved Uyghur groups, no ETIM, no ISIS, nobody.  So I draw the inference that whatever beef the bombers had, it’s playing out in private fora, perhaps related to Thai government/security/police policy.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Uyghur-linked human traffickers actually committed the bombing; but maybe there was someone else behind them, assisting them in the construction of these relatively sophisticated devices, setting up escape routes, using them as cats’ paws and fall guys … and in the process publicly rolling up a Uyghur trafficking operation facilitated by Turkey and detested by the PRC that the Thai government had decided could no longer be tolerated.

And I would be inclined to think, given the vulnerability of the Thai tourist sector and the possibility that elements of the Thai security forces might be compromised, that the government might even be working toward some sort of secret accommodation with whoever’s actually behind the bombings.

And I suspect the avalanche of leaks about this case are designed to roadtest, perfect, and promote a neat narrative that the Thai government hopes will put this ugly incident to bed.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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