Thai authorities are hunting for suspects captured on security camera footage in connection with a powerful blast that killed at least 20 people in Bangkok’s central shopping district, junta leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha said.
The site of Monday’s evening rush hour blast -- near the popular Erawan Hindu shrine in an area surrounded by shopping malls and hotels -- showed the perpetrators aimed to hurt foreigners, Army Chief Udomdej Sitabutr said. A second blast on Tuesday sent water flying into the air at a busy Bangkok boat pier, though no injuries were reported.
The dead in Monday’s attack included people from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. A further 123 were wounded and 68 people are still being treated in the hospital, the Bangkok Emergency Medical Service said Tuesday evening.
“We haven’t concluded yet who did this,” Prayuth told reporters Tuesday. “There are two possibilities between politics and international issues. I haven’t ruled out anything. But there are already conflicts in politics. Who lit the fuse, can you answer me?”
The attack raises the specter of renewed violence in a country that has seen years of political unrest, culminating in a May 2014 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.
Thai police shared photos taken from security footage of one suspect in the blast. The person -- who appears to be a man with shaggy hair and wearing a yellow T-shirt -- was captured on video entering the shrine with a backpack, taking it off and slowly walking away.
Markets were closed at the time of the first bombing. The baht fell 0.5 percent on Tuesday, while the benchmark SET Index declined 2.6 percent as tourism and leisure stocks dropped.
Office buildings close to the U.S. and Japanese embassies in Bangkok erected security barriers overnight and began checking cars for explosives Tuesday. Some companies sent employees home early. Hundreds of schools that were ordered to close the day after the blast will reopen Wednesday.
“The safety of our staff is paramount, and without clear information we have to take a safety-first approach,” said Richard Jackson, general manager of RLC Recruitment, which employs 18 people in the capital.
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.
One of the only economic bright spots has been tourism, which the government expected to bring in $51 billion in revenue this year. Thailand attracted about 25 million tourists in 2014, roughly a quarter of all visitors to Southeast Asia, according to the World Tourism Organization.
“If nothing else occurs, the impact will be limited as we haven’t reached high season in the fourth quarter yet,” Tourism Council of Thailand President Ittirith Kinglake said Tuesday.
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 and saw a major shopping mall set ablaze. It was also among the places attacked in a series of bombings on New Year’s Eve in 2006 that killed three people and wounded dozens.
Another blast on Tuesday further rattled residents of the city. Police said a pipe bomb was thrown at a pier under Taksin Bridge in Bangkok, a key transit hub used by river ferries and hotel boats that connects with a nearby elevated train station.
Prayuth said Monday’s incident was far more serious than past bombings in Thailand’s political conflict.
“The events before were just to cause a scene,” he said. “But this time they aimed to take lives.”
Governments around the globe condemned the attack. The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok warned its citizens to avoid the area, while the Hong Kong government urged a delay to non-essential travel to Bangkok.
Thailand has in the past been a target of international terrorism. Two Iranians were convicted in a 2012 plot that officials believed was aimed at killing Israeli diplomats in Thailand. Explosives accidentally detonated at a Bangkok house the men were renting, leading to a chase in which one of the men blew off his own legs with a bomb. In 1994, a plot to blow up the Israeli Embassy failed when the bomber’s hijacked truck packed with explosives hit a motorcycle.
Monday’s attack 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. It was unlikely to have been carried out by insurgents from Muslim-majority southern provinces that have largely avoided attacks elsewhere.
For the past decade, insurgents in Thailand’s three Muslim-majority provinces near the border with Malaysia have staged regular bombings and shootings, resulting in thousands of deaths as they seek greater autonomy. They have not been known to attack Bangkok, about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) to the north.
“Regardless, these bombings are surely going to send Thailand’s economy south,” Chambers said.