TIME Thailand

Prime Suspect in Bangkok Bombing Has Been Captured, Thai Junta Chief Says

Local media reports he is a Uighur Muslim from China's westernmost region of Xinjiang

The prime suspect in last month’s bombing of Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine has been arrested at the Thai-Cambodian border, Thailand’s officials said Tuesday.

Twenty people were killed and more than 120 injured when the blast ripped through the popular tourist attraction on Aug. 17, in what Thai junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha dubbed the worst attack on the Thai capital in recent memory. Authorities now believe they have apprehended the man in a yellow T-shirt, with dark-rimmed glasses and shaggy hair, seen on CCTV footage dropping a black backpack at the shrine immediately before the blast.

A series of raids over the weekend uncovered bombmaking equipment and a stash of fake passports in eastern Bangkok, and led to one arrest and three warrants issued, including for a Muslim Thai woman who later showed up in Turkey.

According to the Bangkok Post, the man arrested Tuesday was in possession of a Chinese passport with the name Yusufu Mieraili, 25, from China’s Xinjiang region — the resource-rich homeland the embattled Uighur Muslim minority.

If this identity is confirmed, the bombing would seem to be revenge for the July forced repatriation by Thailand of 109 Uighur Muslims to China. The return led to furious protests in Turkey, including an attack on the Thai consulate, as many Turks see themselves as having a common bond with the Turkic-speaking Uighurs.

“A significant proportion of the growingly disenchanted and disenfranchised Uighur population are resorting to escaping China,” Alexander Neill, an expert on Uighur issues at the Singapore-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, tells TIME. “And many Turks see them as ethnic brethren in term of espousing pan-Turkic unity and the glory days of the Ottoman Empire.”

Uighur terrorist attacks have repeatedly targeted civilians in China, including a bloody knife rampage at Kunming train station on March 1, 2014, which killed 31 people and left 141 wounded.

As the Erawan Shrine is popular with mainly ethnic Chinese tourists, and they accounted for half the total dead, the blast seems to have had the twin goals of punishing Thailand for the repatriation and the Beijing government for perceived ongoing marginalization and abuses.

The Uighur connection would also present new problems for the Thai authorities. Bangkok has long been a hub of international criminal syndicates, including narcotics and human-trafficking gangs from Central Europe, owing to lax enforcement, excellent regional connectivity and complicity among certain venal elements of local law enforcement. The Erawan attack, the prospect of ever more Uighur migrants arriving in the Thai capital, and the apparent conflation of criminal and terrorist networks, throw up serious challenges for internal security and Sino-Thai relations.

“China’s response has been to force the hand of Thailand to forcibly repatriate whatever Uighurs they find,” says Neill. “But the bombing exposes the underbelly of this people-smuggling operation and that there’s real doubts that Thai military junta have actually got a grasp of its extent.”

TIME Thailand

Australian Journalist and Colleague Cleared of Charges in Thai Navy Defamation Case

Morison and Sidasathian, reporters for the Phuketwan news website, speak to media as they arrive to a criminal court in Phuket
Reuters Phuketwan journalists Alan Morison, right, and Chutima Sidasathian speak to media as they arrive to a criminal court in Phuket on April 17, 2014

Amnesty International called the verdict "a welcome move for freedom of expression"

An Australian journalist and his Thai colleague have been cleared of defamation charges brought after they reported accusations that some officials in the Thai navy were complicit in human trafficking.

Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, of the Phuketwan news website based on the Thai tourist island of Phuket, faced a possible jail sentence after they quoted an excerpt from a 2013 Reuters special report on human trafficking that subsequently won the news agency a Pulitzer prize.

The line quoted an anonymous trafficker saying certain Thai navy officers profited from turning a blind eye to people smuggling.

A Phuket court acquitted both the journalists of defamation and breaching the Computer Crimes Act on Tuesday morning, reports the BBC.

Neither Reuters nor the two award-winning journalists who penned the original story faced any charges, leading to press freedom advocates to accuse the Thai navy of attempting to muzzle the media by making an example of relatively low-level players.

Reuters has also faced criticism for distancing itself from the case, though the news agency released a statement Tuesday welcoming the verdict. “We are pleased at the Court’s verdict in the case today and Reuters wholeheartedly supports the principles of a free press,” said the statement.

TIME Thailand

Thai Police Just Gave Themselves the Reward Offered for Information on the Bangkok Bombers

THAILAND-UNREST-BOMBING
Pornchai Kittiwongsakul—AFP/Getty Images Thai policemen check security at bars in the tourist area of Bangkok on August 19, 2015.

They've decided to take the money for themselves even though the key suspect is still at large

Thai police have given themselves the 3 million baht (about $84,000) reward originally offered to the public for information leading to the capture of suspects connected to the Aug. 17 bombing of the Erawan Shrine in central Bangkok.

The move comes even though the chief suspect — a man in a yellow T-shirt seen on CCTV cameras dropping a black backpack at the shrine minutes before the explosion — is still at large.

A raid in the east of the capital on Saturday recovered a stash of bombmaking equipment and led to the arrest of an unnamed foreign suspect.

Although no link has yet been proved to the deadly blast, which claimed 20 lives and left more than 120 people injured, police chief Somyot Poompanmoung told reporters on Monday that the police deserved to collect the reward for their diligence and hard work, reports the local Nation newspaper

Warrants have been released for three suspects, only one of which has been named — Wanna Suansan, 26, according to the English-language website of the popular Thai newspaper Khaosod.

TIME Thailand

Thai Police Believe the Bangkok Bombers Planned Further Attacks

Thai Royal Police officials remove evidence from the site where a suspect of the recent Bangkok blast was arrested, in Bangkok
Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters Thai Royal Police officials remove evidence from the site where a suspect of the recent Erawan Shrine blast was arrested in Bangkok on Aug. 29, 2015

Weekend raids have led to one arrest and the seizure of bombmaking equipment

The recent bombing of Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine was likely intended to be the first of a spate of similar terrorist attacks, say Thai police, who are now seeking a Thai woman thought to be connected to a foreign suspect arrested over the weekend.

According to the English-language website of popular Thai newspaper Khaosod, the woman has been identified as Wanna Suansan, 26.

At least 20 people died and more than 120 were injured on Aug. 17 when an explosion ripped through the popular Hindu shrine that is a huge draw for Asian tourists visiting the Thai capital, especially ethnic Chinese. Half the dead were foreigners.

On Sunday, authorities found what appeared to be bombmaking equipment — including urea-based fertilizer (which can be mixed with nitric acid to make a potent explosive), digital clocks and flash powder — at an apartment in east Bangkok after a raid in a neighboring district on Saturday turned up a haul of similar paraphernalia. A foreign man of unknown nationality was arrested during the earlier raid and remains in custody.

“There were large quantities of bombmaking materials including 10 detonator cords” seized on the first raid, said assistant police chief Prawut Thavornsiri, according to the Bangkok Post.

The detained suspect was apparently in possession of a fake Turkish passport, though investigators are not sure as to his true nationality, and the Turkish embassy has denied he is a citizen.

“He gave a certain amount of cooperation, saying where he traveled from,” explained Prawut. “But we don’t believe everything he said. So far he has made no confession.”

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the Erawan Shrine blast. The key evidence remains CCTV footage of a slender man with yellow T-shirt, dark-rimmed glasses and shaggy hair who is seen dropping a bag at the shrine minutes before the explosion and hastily departing. Police do not believe the suspect in detention is the same man.

Besides a drastic and bloody escalation of long-standing political tensions between Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, or a bid by southern Thailand’s Malay-Muslim militants to bring their insurgency to the capital, it is being suggested that a group sympathetic to the Muslim Uighurs of far northwestern China may be responsible.

Many Uighurs complain of marginalization and repression in their homeland at the hands of Beijing. A total of 109 Uighurs were forcibly repatriated from Thailand to China last month — and were seen arriving in shackles and hoods. Many Turks feel a common bond with the Turkic-speaking Uighurs and their treatment at the hands of the Thais prompted furious protests in Istanbul, including an attack on the Thai consulate there.

Anthony Davis, a Southeast Asia specialist at security analysts IHS-Jane’s, told a meeting at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand last week that ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves from Turkey were likely responsible for the Erawan Shrine bombing.

“We’re probably looking at a hybrid involving an ideologically or politically driven element based abroad — maybe Turkish nationals, Uighur exiles or Uighur exiles with Turkish nationality — and a Bangkok-based criminal component acting as facilitator,” he tells TIME. “What they have in common is the same ethnicity and the same shared hatreds.”

Davis says the “traditional cozy accommodations” between some corrupt Thai officials and transnational gangs operating in Thailand — often regarded as just “common criminals” — may now come under scrutiny. “These mutually profitable arrangements may now be seen as representing a direct threat to national security,” he says.

TIME Thailand

Suspects in the Koh Tao Murder Trial Were Given Woefully Unqualified Interpreters

Myanmar migrant worker Win Zaw Htun sits in a prison truck as he arrives at the Koh Samui Provincial Court, in Koh Samui
Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters Burmese migrant worker Zaw Lin sits in a prison truck as he arrives at the Koh Samui Provincial Court, in Koh Samui, Thailand, on July 22, 2015

The accused claim they are scapegoats and face a possible death sentence if convicted

A Thai court has heard that the interpreters used to record the confessions of two Burmese men accused of murdering a pair of British backpackers last year were in fact pancake hawkers who did not properly understand Thai or the suspects’ native Burmese dialect.

Wai Phyo and Zaw Lin, both 22, stand accused of the murder of David Miller, 24, and the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, on the Thai Gulf island of Koh Tao. The victims’ bloodied corpses were discovered in the early hours of Sept. 15 on popular Sairee Beach just yards from their guesthouse.

The suspects, both ethnic Rakhine from Burma’s restive western Arakan state, were working on Koh Tao at the time, and admitted to the double murder during interrogation. However, they soon recanted and claimed they were tortured into confessing.

On Thursday, Samui Central Court heard that two Rohingya Muslims — an ethnicity currently engaged in a bitter sectarian feud with the Rakhine — were employed as interpreters during their interrogation. However, they only had rudimentary understanding of Thai and the Rakhine language, reports the Myanmar Times.

One of the translators, named Ko Ye, admitted to the defense team that he signed a statement confirming what was said during the interrogation even though it was written in the Thai language, which he could not read.

Speaking to TIME in Koh Samui prison prior to the trial, Wai Phyo said the translator accused him of being party to mob violence against Rohingya in their homeland. “He asked me: ‘When the riots started in Burma, where were you? Did you burn down my village?’” said Wai Phyo.

The case continues.

TIME Burma

Burmese President Removes Party Chief in Major Purge Before Landmark Elections

Shwe Mann
Aung Shine Oo—AP In this Wednesday, Aug 12, 2015, photo, Burma's Parliament speaker Shwe Mann leaves after a press conference at the Union Solidarity and Development Party headquarters in Naypyitaw.

It's the greatest shake-up in the ruling party since the end of military dictatorship in 2011

The head of Burma’s military-backed ruling party has been removed from his position, in what appears to be a purge of a key political rival by President Thein Sein before new elections slated for Nov. 8.

Former general Shwe Mann was considered one of the three most powerful figures in the Southeast Asian nation’s nominally civilian government, and also served as speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, a post he seems to have retained for the time being.

Confirmation of his ousting came after a phalanx of security personnel were seen entering the headquarters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Thein Sein announced he was calling an emergency meeting.

“As far as I know, no arrests have been made,” Zaw Htay, the director of the President’s Office, told the Thailand-based Democratic Voice of Burma—a nonprofit media organization that reports on Burma (formally known as Myanmar) and its rulers. “What I do know is that the president has transferred the position of joint-chairmanship [of the party] to U Htay Oo.”

Shwe Mann is considered one of the most reform-minded members of Burma’s former ruling junta, and even made conciliatory overtures to democracy icon and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, who currently heads the main opposition National League for Democracy party.

It is believed that Shwe Mann’s willingness to form ties with Suu Kyi irked many hardline and conservative figures in the USDP, as well as former dictator Senior-General Than Shwe, who, despite his retirement, is known to keep a keen eye on political developments amid the impoverished nation’s reemergence from a half-century of military rule.

However, there were signs that the relationship between Shwe Mann and Suu Kyi had soured following the government’s decision not to amend constitutional provisions that barred Suu Kyi from becoming president, owing to her marriage to a foreign national and sons who hold foreign citizenship.

This has led to speculation that the current upheaval, by far the most significant to shake the USDP since the junta ceded power to a nominally civilian government in 2011, was sparked by a leadership battle. Shwe Mann has been a presidential hopeful in the past, Reuters reports, but despite Thein Sein earlier insisting that he wouldn’t serve a second term, the president now appears to want to remain in office.

Shwe Mann’s removal is just the latest turmoil to roil the USDP in recent days, after two leading figures reportedly quit the party as they were apparently refused “safe seats” in the upcoming polls. Aung Min, the president’s chief peace negotiator with ethnic rebel groups, and Soe Thein, a former minister for industry who has been hugely influential in spearheading economic reform, will now both reportedly stand as independent candidates.

TIME Malaysia

Malaysia’s Anti-Graft Agency Says the Millions in Prime Minister Najib’s Accounts Are ‘Donations’

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak attends a presentation for government interns at the Prime Minster's office in Putrajaya, Malaysia
Olivia Harris—Reuters Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak attends a presentation for government interns at the Prime Minister's Office in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on July 8, 2015

However, it did not say who donated the funds or what their purpose was

Malaysia’s embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak has been effectively absolved of misconduct in an ongoing corruption scandal, after the country’s anticorruption agency ruled that the almost $700 million found in his personal bank accounts were legitimate “donations.”

However, the agency did not reveal who donated the funds or their purpose.

A Wall Street Journal report early last month alleged that Najib received the funds from 1Malaysia Development Bhd, or 1MBD, a state investment fund set up by his government in 2009 that is currently wallowing in $11 billion of debt.

Najib, who acted as chairman of 1MBD’s board of advisers, and is also Finance Minister, strongly denies any malfeasance and has threatened legal action against the newspaper. The Journal stands by its story.

Some analysts believe that the scandal could bring down the Southeast Asian nation’s government. Najib has been in office since 2009 but some of his strongest erstwhile backers, including longtime former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, have recently withdrawn their support.

Last week, Najib sacked his deputy and Malaysia’s attorney general in an apparent attempt to shore up his beleaguered administration.

TIME Aviation

An Expert Says Our Search Strategy Will Need Overhauling If the Réunion Debris Is From MH370

The discovery of possible MH370 debris on Réunion Island would mean that the existing search zone is wrong, a top oceanographer explains

On Friday, a group of French officials boarded a 12-hour flight to Paris from Réunion, a volcanic island and French territory in the southwest Indian Ocean. With them was a 9-ft.-by-3-ft. piece of flotsam many believe is a wing-flap from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board.

It was the unremarkable final stretch on what may turn out to be the wing-flap’s remarkable journey—if indeed it is a wing-flap, and if it turns out to have actually come from MH370. Sources in Boeing have told CNN they are ”confident” the flotsam was part of a Boeing 777, and experts have little doubt the part came from the doomed jetliner. That would mean this debris could have been drifting on ocean currents for more than 500 days for some 2,500 miles, or the equivalent to driving Route 66 from New York to Los Angeles.

Yet what is more remarkable is what more it can tell us. It could, for example, nix ongoing search efforts, which are currently focused around 1,000 miles off the coast of Perth in Western Australia. Authorities have scoured 21,000 square miles of a 23,000 square mile search zone in an operation costing well over $100,000 million, and which has involved thousand of flights, dozens of ships and several submarines. They are now poised to head south and double the search zone’s size.

On Friday, Australian deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told a press conference that he was “confident” this zone was the right one “based on continuing refinement of the satalite data.” He added: “We will continue to concentrate on the southern end of that identified area.”

However, according to Erik van Sebille, a lecturer in oceanography at Imperial College London, the flotsam’s very appearance in Réunion—if it is proven to come from MH370—would mean that searchers have been looking in the wrong place.

“If you take into account the currents in the Indian Ocean, then you can trace the flow backwards from the northern part of the search zone,” he tells TIME. “It would exclude the southern part as anything that drifts from there would go eastward into the Pacific Ocean.”

Following the discovery of the supposed debris—spotted on a pebble beach by an eagle-eyed government worker named Johnny Bègue—helicopters have been scouring Réunion, which lies around 600 mi east of Madagascar, for more. Reports of luggage fragments are currently being investigated. However, van Sebille also believes such efforts are largely misplaced, factoring in the frenzied nature of the ocean’s currents.

“The ocean currents are not like highways. They are not really simple and predictable—they are actually quite chaotic. It’s a bit like the weather,” he says. “It’s just like how San Francisco is typically used to the westerly wind, but every so often it might come the other way—it’s the same for the ocean.”

Experiments with GPS-tracked objects, released 30ft apart in the ocean, have resulted in them drifting hundreds of miles apart within just a month. So while the broad strokes of the ocean’s currents can be mapped, conclusions are typically ambiguous. By tracing the currents from Réunion back to the search zone, “our best hope is that we can perhaps pin down the region to perhaps a few hundred miles, which will still be very large,” says van Sebille.

The barnacles clinging to the wing-flap can also tell a story. Very quickly, investigators will be able to tell from their size how long the object has been in the water, meaning that even if serial numbers cannot categorically prove the object came from MH370, identifying the plane model, combined with time adrift, could remove reasonable doubt.

As there are more than 1,000 species of barnacles in the ocean, with their provenance depending on myriad environmental factors, Benny K.K. Chan, associate professor of marine biology at National Taiwan University, says that it would also be possible to lead back to a specific crash site by identifying certain varieties.

“There are some species of barnacles that have very distinct distribution, and so if you get some of these then maybe you could get some hint from where this wing-flap has drifted,” he tells TIME. “But from the pictures I can only see the lepas genus, which are common to nearly all floating objects.”

Experts are due to examine the flotsam at a laboratory in Toulouse, with conclusions expected in the next day or so. But the value of the wing-flap—again, if MH370’s wing-flap is what it actually is—increases exponentially should more debris be found, especially, and perhaps surprisingly, if it is found far from the original discovery.

“If we find some debris somewhere else on a completely different part of the Indian Ocean, then what we can do is backtrack that too and then look at the overlap,” says van Sebille. “You can then look at the overlap of all the rough areas. It’s essentially triangulation.”

TIME Aviation

What to Know About the New Malaysia Airlines Clue

The discovery is the most significant since the Boeing 777 vanished almost 17 months ago

An Australian official warned Thursday not to jump to conclusions about a barnacle-encrusted, 9-by-3-ft. piece of flotsam that washed up on the French island of Reunion — a discovery many are saying may be debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Australia’s deputy prime minister, Warren Truss, said it was premature to link the recovered chunk of metal with the jet that went missing 509 days ago. “It is too early to make that judgment,” Truss said at a news conference in Sydney. “But clearly we are treating this as a major lead and seeking to get assurance about what has been found and whether it is indeed linked to the disappearance of MH 370.”

Other officials have a “high degree of confidence” that the discovery is an aluminum-composite wing-flap from a Boeing 777, the same type of plane that vanished shortly after departing Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8, 2014. The 227 passengers and 12 crew are all presumed dead.

Now engineers from Boeing are examining the debris to confirm that it is a flaperon from a 777, and even, if possible, from MH370 specifically. “We are treating this as a major lead and seeking to get assurance about what has been found and if it is indeed liked to the disappearance of MH370,” Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said at a press conference Thursday.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Where does the investigation stand?

Initial search efforts were concentrated along the flight’s charted route over the South China Sea, but then moved to the Strait of Malacca when Thai military radar indicated the aircraft doubled back across the Malay Peninsula (conventional tracking wasn’t possible as the plane’s secondary radar had been disabled inside the cockpit).

Then, after still no trace was found, pioneering data analysis by British satellite telecom firm Inmarsat indicated that MH370 had traveled south into the Indian Ocean, probably running out of fuel roughly 1,000 miles off the western Australia city of Perth.

A total of 55,000 sq km of seafloor has been scoured in this area, but the lack of any success prompted the search zone to be doubled to 120,000 sq km in May. In addition, thousands of reconnaissance flights were launched, with the combined operation costing more than $100 million — an unprecedented figure.

And so, if confirmed, Wednesday’s discovery of a supposed wing-flap — found 2,500 miles (or the equivalent of the width of the U.S.) from the search zone — would be the first definitive piece of proof that the plane had crashed.

“Malaysia Airlines is working with the relevant authorities to confirm the matter,” the carrier said in an emailed statement. “At the moment, it would be too premature for the airline to speculate the origin of the flaperon.”

2. What’s next?

Proving categorically that the recovered piece came from a Boeing 777. Investigators from the U.S. aviation giant, as well as representatives from Malaysia Airlines, are currently trying to make that call. But should verification prove tricky in tiny Reunion, they may transport the object to specialist labs in France for further examination. (France has jurisdiction to handle evidence found on its territory, though will work with Malaysia, which heads the overall investigation because it involves its flag carrier; Australia has also offered assistance.)

Ideally, they would find a serial number. If there’s a part number that starts with “113W,” then we know it comes from a 777. (A marking “PB670” was found on the object, revealed Truss, though the significance is so far unknown.)

If the part is confirmed as coming from a 777, experts say there will be little doubt it came from MH370. “Our goal, along with the entire global aviation industry, continues to be not only to find the airplane but also to determine what happened — and why,” said Boeing in a statement Wednesday.

3. So have we been searching in the wrong place all this time?

Not at all. In the almost 17 months since the plane vanished, debris could feasibly have drifted anywhere around the globe. Certainly, the buffeting South Atlantic Gyre could have swept a flaperon from Western Australia to Reunion.

“The information that we have is consistent with the search that’s being undertaken at the present time,” Truss told reporters. “It supports the satellite data and the identification of the area in the southern Indian Ocean as the likely place where the aircraft could have entered the water.

However, if confirmed, additional searches of islands near Reunion, and the coastlines of nearby Madagascar and East Africa, could also be initiated to try to find more debris.

4. What does it tell us?

If confirmed as a piece from MH370, the most telling initial detail is the size of the debris, which experts say makes a high-velocity nose-dive crash unlikely. Larger objects of this ilk are more common from slower impacts, such as a pilot deliberately plotting a gentle descent.

“It’s an indication that this broke off in some sort of a landing or a spiral down from altitude as the plane stalled and ran out of fuel,” Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, told CNN.

But even the attached barnacles could tell an important story, given that there are over 1,000 different species throughout the oceans dependent on myriad environmental factors.

5. What’s the legal significance?

Very little. Under the Montreal Convention, litigation against an airline must take place within two years of a disaster. This is still the time frame that lawyers representing the victims’ families are working within. But Malaysia Airlines has already accepted responsibility and declared that the missing plane was “lost.”

Compensation has already been announced, although the amount could be challenged. However, as an airline has a “strict liability” to deliver passengers to a destination, the cause of the crash — pilot suicide, pilot error, hijacking, etc. — only has limited significance.

“The cause may not matter vis-à-vis the airline regarding what their duties and responsibilities are to pay compensation,” Brian Alexander, a lawyer specializing in aviation litigation for Kreindler & Kreindler LLP, which is representing 48 victims’ families, tells TIME. “And I don’t think this one finding would affect our decisionmaking regarding the timing of the filing.”

However, should more wreckage be found to indicate the disaster resulted from a mechanical fault that was not the airline’s fault, additional litigation could theoretically be brought against Boeing.

6. What about the families?

This is where the discovery could be hugely significant. Without debris, conspiracy theories have proliferated, with some suggesting an elaborate heist and that the airplane may have been stashed for reuse in a later terrorist attack, possibly in a disused Soviet-era military runway somewhere near the Caucuses. Many families have refused to give up hope until the plane has definitively been proved as crashed. That time, for better or worse, may soon be upon us.

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