BANGKOK — Human body parts, twisted metal and battered vehicles littered a normally busy Bangkok intersection Monday evening after a bomb exploded at Erawan shrine, one of the city’s most-visited tourist sites. Police said 17 people were killed and warned that the death toll was likely to rise as more of the approximately 120 injured succumb to their wounds. By late evening the unofficial count had risen to 27.
The blast erupted around 7 p.m., setting off small fires around the site. When I arrived at the scene about 45 minutes later, cars that had caught fire were still smoldering and the iron fence around the shrine was bent out of shape. Parts of the street were slick with blood and the acrid smell of explosives still hung in the air the way it does in a combat zone.
Shortly after the initial explosion, police found a second bomb. Officers shouted at gawkers who had pressed to within a few feet of the site to get back—sending dozens running down Ratchadamri Road on foot and on motorbikes. That second bomb was disarmed without incident.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the deadly attack. But Thailand has been restive ever since Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled in a 2006 military coup d’etat. The military staged another coup in May 2014 and the country is now run by a junta led by Army General/Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
A government spokesman said “it is too early to speculate” about who is responsible for the explosion. Thai television quoted Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwong saying that “It was a TNT bomb … the people who did it targeted foreigners and to damage tourism and the economy.”
The victims of what police said was an improvised explosive device appeared to be mostly foreigners, who throng the hugely popular Hindu site daily, offering prayers and lighting incense sticks. The majority of injured were ethnic Chinese, apparently from China and Taiwan, Thai radio reported.
A man who identified himself only as Saksith paused briefly to say he had been across the street outside the mammoth Central World shopping center when he heard “a loud boom” from the direction of Ploenchit Road.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but I saw fire,” he said, indicating the shrine before driving off on a motorcycle.
A woman who said she sells fruit near Gaysorn Plaza, another of the large malls that anchor three corners of the Ratchaprasong intersection, said she heard a “bang,” saw flames and smoke, and “I ran the other way to get away from there.”
The fourth corner of the intersection is anchored by Police General Hospital, where many bombing victims were taken Monday night.
Some passersby sought refuge in some of the nearby luxury hotels, as police sealed off an area up to 500 yards from the blast site. Several people milled around the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Erawan. Among them was Thanapon Peng, 25, who told The Guardian that he passed the site on a motorbike taxi moments after the blast. “I saw glass. I saw some organs of people on the road. I don’t know how many people there were,” he told the newspaper.
It was not clear late Monday night exactly where the bomb was planted, although Thai reports suggested it had been placed in a vehicle.
“It was a bomb, I think it was inside a motorcycle … it was very big, look at the bodies,” a rescue volunteer who wanted to remain anonymous told AFP.
Central Bangkok grew chaotic as dozens of emergency vehicles, lights flashing and sirens blaring, raced to the scene. From the city’s elevated train, the shrine appeared to be a jumble of downed lamp posts, busted scooters, bludgeoned cars, and dust. White sheets could be seen, apparently covering bodies, and police and other first responders shouted instructions at each other.
As ambulances took away the dead and injured and late evening turned into night, police officers were still walking along nearby streets, apparently looking for body parts and evidence.
Ratchaprasong is akin to Cairo’s Tahrir Square as a frequent site of political demonstrations—and outbursts. About 90 anti-government Thais were killed there in a 2010 crackdown by the military. Most recently it was the site of protests, which began in October 2013, against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra—Thaksin’s sister. She eventually was deposed in May 2014.
The government has said that elections to restore civilian rule will be held late next year, but critics remain skeptical, estimating that the generals will try to extend their tenure into 2017.
“This attack took place following the recent revelation by the Thai military regime that the new constitution being drafted will include new emergency provisions that will allow a special committee led by the prime minister and includ[ing] military leaders to overtake legislative and executive powers from the government in times of crisis,” Verapat Pariyawong, a visiting scholar at the University of London, said in an email.
Kan Yuenyong , executive director of the Siam Intelligence Unit, said in a Facebook message: “It’s too early to reach any conclusion. But if it links to political conflict recently, which I believe it will, there will be four possible suspects: 1. The junta in order to find justification to stay in the power. 2. Red shirt extremists, in order to shake the security order and send [a] political signal to the junta. 3. Yellow shirt extremists; they are not the current political power holder and are yet to reach to their objective to get rid of Thaksin and his network, and 4. the deep Southern province terrorists , in order to expand their terrorist action out of the provinces. I think 2 and 3 are the most possible actors.”
Red Shirts support the Shinawatras and their successors. Yellow Shirts are seen as backers of the so-called elites that have run the nation for most of its modern history. Militants in three of the country’s southern —and Muslim—provinces have been conducting a low-grade insurgency for decades in a bid for autonomy. Over the years some 6,000 people have died in the insurgency.
There is, as of this moment, no reason to believe that al Qaeda or ISIS spin-offs were involved in today’s atrocity, but given the recent history of jihadist movements, that cannot be ruled out.