20 August 2015
The Erawan Bombing
I heard the bomb go off just as I was getting out of the taxi that had taken me home on Monday evening. My building's security guards and I looked at each other and shared an unspoken moment of real horror. Upstairs, I could smell the smoke from my balcony. The sirens went on for two hours. It was not until the next morning that I read about the bombing at the Erawan Shrine. I wept.
Over the nearly two decades I have lived in the Big Mango I have passed by the Erawan Shrine at least 3,000 times. It's on the route I usually take to work. If you are one of the devoted readers who have made this blog what some have kindly called "cult status," you know that I live just two long blocks from the Rachaprasong intersection, which is best known for shopping malls and five star hotels, not to mention the most prominent demonstration site in Asia. I have lived through it all.
From time to time I have also visited the shrine, mostly in the company of friends from abroad. It is said that if you make an unselfish wish and pray at all four sides of the golden statue of Lord Brahma, your wish has a pretty good chance of coming true. If it does, you are obligated to dance naked around the glittering statue three times. I have indeed seen the place screened off from street view a couple of times, possibly to give those honoring the pact they made with Brahma some privacy. Since it was built in the 1950s to boost the good karma of the hotel next door, the shrine has been busy 24/7. There is always a crowd, always music, and usually dancers.
Last night I stopped there on my way home. There were police vehicles outside, and a TV truck with a satellite dish. There must have been 200 people there, some openly weeping, and all silent. "The American ambassador was just here," a woman next to me whispered. She works in a restaurant next door where I sometimes have lunch on weekends. Somber children in school uniforms sat perfectly still within the wrought iron fence that forms the perimeter of the shrine. Many of the people there had brought flowers as a remembrance to those who were killed. Men were at work replacing blue ceramic tiles on the roof of the pavilion where musicians sit. I am certain they must be among the 20 dead.
Five members of a Malaysian family visiting the shrine on Monday were also killed on Monday, including a child and a pregnant woman. Actually, one of them is listed as "missing" since no identifiable body parts were found. The two surviving family members are hospitalized. Other victims were British, Chinese, Indonesian, and Thai. According to police, 123 were injured.
Who would want to commit a hideous act of terrorism like this? That's the question on everyone's lips. I have asked a number of people I know and an overwhelming number of fingers point at a former prime minister living in exile. It is true that I am no fan of this fellow, but these many pointed fingers came as a surprise. There is no evidence that he was behind this. Yet, he has become sort of a generic villain. "The drought is Thanksin's fault," one person added. He was stripped of his police rank and royal decorations just days ago. While he is egotistical and mean spirited I have a hard time believing that he could go this far.
This morning the police released a sketch of the prime suspect, based on grainy CCTV footage. They have labeled him a "farang" (foreigner) in characteristic Thai xenophobia. There are suggestions that he is Middle Eastern, although the drawing is clearly of an Asian who could be Thai, Burmese, Chinese, or Malay. There is certainly nothing Middle Eastern about him. One motorcycle taxi driver who claims the suspect has been his regular customer says that he speaks both Thai and English. The yellow shirt the suspect wore could be an accident, but it is more likely a satirical political remark in a country where shirt colors usually make a statement. The streets have been awash with baby blue shirts recently, in honor of HM the Queen's birthday last week. Royalty have their own colors. The King's is yellow.
Other fingers point at Moslem insurgents from Southern Thailand, and Uyghurs who are unhappy that the junta repatriated refugee Uyghurs to China, where they are clearly mistreated. My early theory was that irate Thai motorists who are tired of being pulled over by police for bribes may be the culprits. After abandoning this practice for a year after the generals took over running the country, and seeing their leader imprisoned for what will turn out to be life for all kinds of corruption, they're baaaaack. I saw the beginnings of a confrontation last week as police began to march towards a tourist filming this practice in front of the Amari Watergate Hotel.
While we may never know who is behind this tragic mass murder, one thing is clear--the biggest victim is Thailand. The bombing serves as a reminder to the world that Thailand is perpetually unstable. I make no secret of the fact that business has been lousy for the past two years due to political turmoil, demonstrations and a coup. Things have been looking up for the past few months, so this could not have come at a worse time.
Hotels and tour companies that cater to the Chinese market are in for particularly bad times ahead. China is Thailand's biggest tourism customer, and Chinese are very sensitive to any kind of trouble. A sales manager for a hotel that depends on Chinese visitors told me yesterday that cancellations are already heavy. I will be able to tell whether the numbers of Chinese are dwindling from the size of the queue outside ZipZap, a yummy noodle place in my soi. A few months ago it was suddenly discovered by Chinese tourists and are usually fifty or more in line to get in every morning. This morning: zero.
Many of our friends around the world have sent emails and Facebook messages about their concern for our well-being, for which we are thankful. All things considered, I do not feel in any danger here, even though the long block in front of Central World--just around the corner from where I live--has been the scene of many needless deaths while I have lived here. Los Angeles is probably far more dangerous.
I hope you will join me in praying for Thailand. All of us here are suffering through yet another tragic and shameful event. We all feel the pain together, and it is because we are together, we will survive. This morning the shrine appeared back to normal. Workmen were unloading large golden-colored elephants from a truck. I suspect someone of means sent them as a way to insure long-lasting good karma. The place was packed with people delivering Lord Brahma a steady stream of wishes, proving just how resilient Thai people really are, and reminding me why I stay.
P.S. One week on and there are no suspects. The police had a bad case of foot-in-mouth last week but this week they are as silent as the dead. Apparently they do not have the forensic tools needed for a breakthrough. They hope to get some, although they do not want foreigners directly messing with their investigation. One thing is certain: the design of the bomb is foreign. They are searching every guesthouse, B&B and hotel in town. The latest speculation is that Moslem terrorists--perhaps with ISIS connections--were behind this. Nobody has taken credit. "Where is Inspector Clouseau when you really need him?" a reader commented on the Bangkok Post's news feed. All of the comments posted were overwhelmingly negative about the police's ability to do actual police work.
The reward money is now up to about five million baht. Thaksin Shinawatra has put up 3 million and his son 200,000. Gold prices are up, and the stock market is down. I wandered into Zipzap on Saturday for lunch without waiting. The place was practically empty.