Erawan Shrine, nestled between shopping malls in downtown Bangkok, is normally a riot of incense, garlands and Buddhist worshippers praying to a Hindu deity. On the evening of Aug. 17, during rush hour, the shrine area was hit by a pipe bomb that killed at least 20 people and injured 125. More than half the fatalities were foreigners.
Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, called the blast the deadliest attack in recent Thai history. In its pursuit of tourist dollars, the Southeast Asian nation of 67 million has marketed itself as “the land of smiles”; the slogan of its national air carrier is “smooth as silk.” Around 10% of the nation’s economy depends on vacationers–vacationers who may be less willing to come in the aftermath of the bombing.
Yet even before the Erawan attack, Thailand was not at peace. For a decade, factional strife has resulted in revolving-door governments and military crackdowns on protesters that have killed dozens not far from Erawan Shrine. In Thailand’s deep south, Muslim militants have waged a crusade of bombings, shootings and beheadings that has killed thousands over the past decade.
Thailand is now ruled by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the Orwellian name the Thai military regime gave itself after last year’s coup–one of a dozen such successful putsches in the country’s modern history. Prayuth, a retired general, has ruled out elections this year. He has joked–one presumes–that journalists who write untruthful stories could be executed. The NCPO is no fan of messy, Western-style democracy and has cozied up to China. In July, at Beijing’s request, the junta deported 109 fleeing ethnic Uighurs back to China, where the Muslim minority faces repression.
When the military isn’t meddling in politics, Thais have consistently voted for populist parties associated with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Ousted by the army in a 2006 coup, Thaksin was convicted in absentia of abuse of power. His sister Yingluck Shinawatra later became Prime Minister, buoyed by support from Thailand’s poor but populous northeast. But last year’s coup ended her hold on power.
Thailand’s years of political instability, plus the ill health of its long-serving monarch, have shaken confidence in Southeast Asia’s second biggest economy. On Aug. 19, Thai police issued a warrant for a “male foreigner” alleged to have deposited a bomb-filled backpack at Erawan Shrine before walking away. Thailand’s currency sank to its lowest level in six years; the nation’s stock market also retreated amid fears for the tourism industry. Erawan Shrine is where some Thais pray for good fortune. The nation needs it.
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