A powerful explosion killed at least 19 people in Bangkok’s central shopping district on Monday night, the first major attack in the Thai capital since the military seized power in May last year.
The blast during rush hour left body parts scattered on Ratchaprasong intersection, which is surrounded by malls, hotels and the Erawan Hindu shrine frequented by tourists and locals. The military government blamed miscreants seeking to destroy the tourist-reliant economy.
Nineteen people, including Chinese and Filipino tourists, were killed, the Ministry of Public Health said. Hospital officials are treating 117 people, many of whom are foreigners, according to the Emergency Medical Institute of Thailand.
The attack raises the specter of renewed violence in a country that has seen years of unrest, culminating in the coup that deposed a government backed by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Parties linked to Thaksin have won the past five elections, leading to a backlash among opponents who saw him as a threat to the monarchy, which is protected from criticism by strict laws.
“The criminals aimed to destroy the economy and tourism as the incident took place in the heart of the city,” Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters. “This should be condemned as the type of devices they used show they aimed to hurt people and have an intention to create violence.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was shocked by the explosion, while Singapore’s Foreign Ministry condemned the attack, saying some Singaporeans had been injured.
The U.S. embassy in Bangkok warned its citizens to avoid the area. It’s unclear if any U.S. citizens were affected by the blast, State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a briefing.
“We don’t have any information right now that would lead up to be able to describe the cause here,” Kirby said. “Our thoughts are with the victims and their families, and with the Thai emergency personnel who are working to help those injured.”
The Ratchaprasong intersection has been a site for political protests in recent years, including demonstrations in 2010 by supporters of Thaksin that led to a deadly military crackdown. Ratchaprasong was among the places attacked in a series of bombings on New Year’s Eve in 2006 that killed three people and wounded dozens.
The explosion rattled windows in office towers several blocks away. An improvised explosive device was suspected, police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri said by phone.
“It’s too soon to conclude who is responsible for the bomb, but it’s possible that it may be those old groups who lost benefit,” Sansern Kaewkamnerd, a government spokesman, told reporters. “They want to create unrest and hurt tourism.”
The blast adds to concerns about slowing economic growth in Thailand in part due to the political discord that has worsened over the past decade. Data released on Monday showed the economy slowed in the second quarter on weak local demand and exports, with the outlook clouded further by drought and the devaluation of China’s currency.
Markets were closed at the time of the bombing. The baht fell 0.4 percent on Monday, while the benchmark SET Index declined 0.4 percent. Banks and markets will operate normally on Tuesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Bank of Thailand said. Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra said 438 schools in the capital will be closed.
Junta leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha was aware of Monday’s blast and will monitor the situation closely, government spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak said.
“Security officials are taking every possible measure to secure the area and conduct investigations while emergency services are in full response,” Werachon said.
The bombing may spur more repressive measures by the military or renewed anti-Thaksin protests, according to Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai. The bombing was unlikely to have been carried out by insurgents from Muslim-majority southern provinces that have largely avoided attacks elsewhere in the country.
“Regardless, these bombings are surely going to send Thailand’s economy south,” Chambers said.
–With assistance from Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Supunnabul Suwannakij in Bangkok.
To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Blake in Bangkok at firstname.lastname@example.org; Anuchit Nguyen in Bangkok at email@example.com To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at firstname.lastname@example.org Daniel Ten Kate
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