THAILAND
image

Bangkok shrine bombing

Is Beijing bullying Thai police? Bangkok blast investigation has veered sharply away from Uygur link

Pressure from Beijing may have prompted backflip on main theory about who carried out last month's bombing attack on Bangkok's Erawan Shrine

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, 2:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, 10:02am

The police investigation into the Bangkok shrine blast increasingly points towards a game-changing attack on Chinese tourists by Uygur militants or sympathisers, analysts say - but Thailand and Beijing are loath to admit it.

Nearly a month after the August 17 attack, Thailand has two foreigners in custody and a dozen arrest warrants issued, and insists the network responsible for the explosion is in their crosshairs.

But investigators have yet to provide a compelling motive for the carnage in Bangkok's commercial heart, which left 20 people dead - the majority ethnic Chinese tourists.

The leading theory they have offered is that the bomb was an act of revenge by criminals striking back at a police crackdown on a people-smuggling network.

That take has been shredded by analysts and the Thai public, unconvinced a criminal gang would have the means or motivation to carry out such a brutal act.

In recent days, links with militants from the Chinese Uygur minority - or ethnic Turkic supporters - seem to have firmed up with the passports, ethnicities and travel plans of key suspects all appearing to point in that direction.

If the police investigation is on track, "there is definitely a Uygur or radical Turkish national connection," Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian militant groups, said.

Yet Thai police are bending over backwards not to use the words "Uygur" or "terrorism", largely, analysts say, for fear of putting off tourists or angering China - one of the junta's few international friends.

That determination reached near comical proportions on Saturday, when a warrant for a key suspect named as Abudusataer Abudureheman, or "Ishan", was issued.

Police said he was a Chinese national of Uygur ethnicity who left the country before the attack, only to rescind the word "Uygur" hours later and call on the press to drop the term entirely.

Mostly Muslim Uygurs have long accused Beijing of religious and cultural repression in China's far western Xinjiang region, with hundreds of refugees believed to have fled in recent years, often heading to Turkey via Southeast Asia.

Thailand's deportation of 109 Uygur refugees to China in July sparked violent protests in Turkey, where nationalist hardliners see the minority as part of a global Turkic-speaking family.

Each release of information from the Thai police has only fuelled speculation of Uygur involvement.

One of the two suspects in custody, Yusufu Mieraili, was arrested with a Chinese passport that gave a Xinjiang birthplace.

Almost all the identified suspects have Turkish sounding names or links, including the second detained foreigner - Adem Karadag - who was discovered with dozens of fake Turkish passports. Another suspect, Emrah Davutoglu, had US$11,000 transferred into a Thai account to help fund the operation, police say.

His Thai wife, also wanted by police, says she currently lives in the central Turkish city of Kayseri, an area renowned for giving sanctuary to Uygurs fleeing China.

If the culprits are Turkish or of Turkic origin, said Anthony Davis, a security analyst with IHS Jane's, "then it probably ties back into the eruption of anger following the Thai decision to deport the Uygurs".

Pictures showing the deportees hooded and surrounded by Chinese guards, he added, could have been the "straw that broke the camel's back", raising the prospect of a revenge attack schemed in Turkey and carried out with affiliates in Bangkok's underworld.

Analysts say Thailand is keen to avoid naming Uygurs for economic and diplomatic reasons. Chinese visitors are a linchpin of the tourist industry, and Beijing remains one of the increasingly isolated Thai junta's few international allies.

"In many ways Thailand has been handcuffed by its reliance on Beijing," Thai politics expert Pavin Chachavalpongpun, also a former diplomat, said.

For its part, Beijing is keen to avoid any suggestion its tourists might now be considered targets by violent Islamists because of their government's domestic policies.

Last week, China's state-run Global Times ran a report quoting an unnamed official admitting Uygur militants could be behind the blast. But the article was swiftly deleted.

Barry Sautman from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology says China rarely identifies militants as Uygurs in order to keep a lid on ethnic tensions. Thailand's reluctance is "an indication... that the Chinese government is already involved in this issue".

Michael Clarke, an authority on Xinjiang at the Australian National University, said it was unclear if the blast may have been carried out by a Uygur group or if other jihadists "opportunistically used the Uygur issue as a cause celebre in Thailand".

Other potential perpetrators named by police or experts during the investigation have included international jihadists, members of Thailand's southern Malay-Muslim insurgency or militants on both sides of the country's festering political divide. However, the design, target and aftermath of the attack is not considered to fit the modus operandi of any of these groups.

Uygur militant plots inside China have been rudimentary and they are not known to have ever carried out an attack outside the country.

For members of the global Uygur community, Thailand's reluctance to officially point the finger of blame has been little comfort.

The World Uygur Congress, a lobby group, called for more "transparent information" on the attack from the Thai police.

"I fear now that Uygurs currently in Thailand may be negatively impacted and hope the Thai government will provide humanitarian protection," said spokesman Dilxat Raxit.


How suspicion for attack fell on repressed minority

Arrests made and details revealed about the August 17 Bangkok bombing that killed 20 people have raised the question of whether members of an ethnic and religious minority from China's far west were involved. Here's a primer on the Uygurs, the repression they face in China and their presence abroad:

WHO ARE THE UYGURS?

The Uygurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group native to China's far western region of Xinjiang , which was sporadically controlled by Chinese dynasties over the centuries. They have long complained of ethnic discrimination and religious restriction under the Chinese government, which is dominated by members of the Han ethnic group. Several decades of economic development have brought an influx of Han people into the Uygurs' oil-rich home region. Uygurs have felt marginalised in the region's economic boom, culminating in rioting that left nearly 200 dead in the regional capital of Urumqi in 2009.

RECENT UNREST

Since 2009, there have been frequent attacks on police stations, military checkpoints and government buildings in Xinjiang. The violence has spilled into other regions with Uygur militants accused of mounting attacks in train stations, markets and even a public square in Beijing. In March 2014, a group of Uygurs - including two women - slashed indiscriminately at crowds at a train station in Kunming , killing 31. In May of 2014, a bomb assault on a market in Urumqi left 43 people dead.

BEIJING'S RESPONSE

Beijing has long been wary of the independence-minded militants and began labelling them "terrorists" in 2001 in a bid to win international support for the struggle against them. Scholars have argued that China's stifling policies in the region - including restrictions on beards and veils have marginalised the Uygurs and fuelled militancy. Last year, Uygur economist Ilham Tohti, who had urged Beijing to review its policies and foster reconciliation, was convicted of inciting separatism and sentenced to life in prison. In response to the 2014 attacks, Beijing launched a one-year crackdown on terror cells in Xinjiang, executing and jailing hundreds of people on terrorism-related charges.

FLEEING CHINA

Uygurs have been fleeing China in recent years, often by way of Southeast Asia. Rights advocates say they are escaping repressive rule, but Beijing says many are leaving to join jihad with the intention of returning to China to carry out terrorist attacks. Courts in the Xinjiang cities of Hotan , Kashgar and Karamay recently jailed Chinese smugglers who helped Uygurs cross illegally into Vietnam, as well as several Uygurs who unsuccessfully tried to emigrate illegally. While there are large Uygur diasporas in Europe and the United States, Turkey is the destination of choice for most seeking to leave China. Turkey's government is under intense public pressure to support the Uygurs, leading to tensions in Ankara's relationship with Beijing.

THAILAND'S REPATRIATION

In late 2014, the Thai government detained hundreds of migrants believed to be Uygurs in refugee camps, including women and children. Many refused to speak to Chinese officials, claiming to be Turkish, and many obtained legitimate Turkish passports and later settled in Turkey. However, on July 9 of this year, Thailand repatriated more than 100 of the Uygurs - mostly men - who were wanted by China as terror suspects. This drew criticism from Uygur advocates, human rights groups, the US, the United Nations and others, all concerned that the returnees would be persecuted. Video footage by Chinese state media showed %the men hooded and under tight security. Chinese authorities have granted no independent access to any court proceedings for the returnees.

BANGKOK BOMBING

After the attack in Bangkok, police arrested two foreigners, confiscated bomb-making materials from two flats on the outskirts of Bangkok and are looking for 10 other suspects. The first suspect arrested was found at one of the flats and possessed a fake Turkish passport. The second, arrested near the Thai-Cambodia border, carried a passport that indicated he was originally from Xinjiang.

Associated Press