Thailand unveils restored statue at blast site amid growing questions about Turkish link
BANGKOK – Thai authorities unveiled the restored centerpiece Friday of the Erawan Shrine, in the latest bid to restore confidence among Bangkok's tourism and business communities almost three weeks after a deadly bombing that left 20 dead.
In the past week, police have arrested two people and identified seven more believed to be part of a network that carried out the Aug. 17 blast, which also injured more than 120 people. They have intentionally avoided calling it an act of terrorism for fear of hurting Thailand's image.
"The most important issue for the country's image is to restore confidence about safety," Minister of Culture Vira Rojpojchanarat told reporters at Friday's ceremony. He said it was intended to "create confidence and raise the morale of (Thai) people and tourists."
The ministry's Fine Arts Department repaired 12 areas of the shrine's gleaming golden statue of the Hindu god Brahma that were damaged by the attack, notably on its four-headed face where a chin was blasted out, Vira said.
"Every day the police and national security are making progress on the case," Vira added.
In the past week, the investigation picked up pace with police arresting the two suspects and carrying out two raids on homes in Bangkok where bomb-making materials were discovered. At a third raid on Thursday, authorities found "suspicious fluid in a barrel" that was being analyzed by explosives experts, said national police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri.
Thai authorities have suggested that at least two of the nine suspects are possibly Turkish, prompting the Turkish Embassy in Bangkok to issue a statement Thursday saying it has not received confirmation from Thai authorities about the suspects' nationalities.
The Turkish connection has boosted a theory that the suspects may be part of a group seeking to avenge Thailand's forced repatriation of more than 100 ethnic Uighurs to China in July. Thailand is believed to be a transit stop for Chinese Uighurs attempting to go to Turkey.
Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are related to Turks, and Turkey is home to a large Uighur community. The Erawan Shrine is especially popular with Chinese tourists, feeding the speculation that it could have been targeted by people who believe the Uighurs are oppressed by China's government.
China has alleged that the repatriated Uighurs included some who intended to join Islamic State fighters in Syria.
In another finding that could support a link to Uighurs, police said that a man arrested Tuesday who is considered a main suspect in the bombing was carrying a Chinese passport. The passport indicated he was from the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, but Thai authorities had not yet verified its authenticity, Prawut said. Xinjiang is the home of the Turkish-speaking Uighurs.
Authorities on Thursday identified the suspect but issued two different spellings of his name — Mieraili Yusufu and Yusufu Meerailee — and said he faces charges of possessing unauthorized explosives. Police said they found his fingerprints on a bottle of bomb-making material recovered from an apartment that was raided over the weekend.
The other suspects include a Thai woman identified as Wanna Suansan and said to be married to a Turkish man. Both are being sought by Thai police.
The home police raided Thursday was leased by Wanna, the police spokesman said. The home is in the outer Bangkok neighborhood of Min Buri near another apartment also leased by Wanna where police found gunpowder, fertilizer and other bomb-making materials in a raid over the weekend.
In interviews with Thai media, Wanna said she is innocent and is currently living in Turkey.
Thai authorities have been careful not to state publicly that the case may be linked to the Uighurs. They have said that such speculation could affect international relations and hurt tourism.
"We have agreed already that I won't mention the name of a country, the name of a group or their religion. Please allow me to say that it is a network, and let's wait and see which group it is," Prawut said Thursday when asked if the case was linked to Uighurs.
Thai security officials have suggested the suspects are part of a human trafficking ring with a grudge against Thailand. However, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, known for his outspokenness, has stretched the theory to acknowledge it could have been a gang involved in smuggling Uighurs out of China.
The embassy statement highlighted the confusion surrounding the ongoing investigation, in which police say they seized more than 200 fake Turkish passports.
"There is no clear information on the issue," the spokesman was quoted as saying, urging Thai authorities to "provide clear and correct information."