The Thai government yesterday announced that the man believed to be the prime suspect in the deadly bombing of Bangkok’s Erawan shrine had been arrested in Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province, though well-placed officials in both Cambodia and Thailand said that the man was actually arrested at Phnom Penh International Airport.
The Cambodian police official’s version of events, corroborated by a Thai police source quoted by the Bangkok Post, contradicts the official narrative of the Thai authorities – including statements by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha – and has been denied by a Cambodian official.
Prayuth told reporters yesterday the unidentified man was arrested on the Thai side of the border in Sa Kaeo province, across from Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey province.
Asked whether he was thought to be the person who planted the bomb at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok’s busy Chidlom shopping district, he replied: “We are interrogating. He is a main suspect and a foreigner.”
However, according to the Cambodian source, the man was arrested at Phnom Penh airport after Thais tipped off their Cambodian counterparts he had fled to Cambodia.
He was yesterday transferred into Thai custody across the border at Poipet, he said.
“Thailand gave us a tip about this suspect,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They requested our cooperation to arrest him.”
A member of the Thai police investigative team also told the Bangkok Post the suspect was arrested at Phnom Penh airport while trying to depart for Turkey.
A Cambodian police spokesman yesterday denied this, while several other officials denied earlier reports that Thailand had requested Cambodia’s assistance to find two suspects who had fled across the border.
“No, we don’t have this man in Cambodia,” National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith said, responding to the claim. “Cambodian forces have been monitoring [the case] but we have no clue of such a suspect.”
The Cambodian source, however, said the arrest had been kept secret because the suspect was believed to be “wanted” by China.
He did not say whether the man was an ethnic Uighur – a Muslim minority, some of whom are considered terrorists by Beijing for their separatist movement in China’s west.
A passport photo widely circulated online, purportedly of the man arrested yesterday, identified a Chinese national from Xinjiang province, home to the ethnic minority, though Thai authorities did not confirm that the man identified on the passport was the one arrested.
Twenty people, mostly Chinese tourists, were killed and more than 100 injured when the blast tore through the religious shrine on August 17.
Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, speculation has grown that it could have been carried out in retaliation to Thailand’s forced repatriation of more than 100 ethnic Uighurs to China in July.
Suspicion has also intermittently fallen on political opponents of the Thai government, criminal gangs and rebels in Thailand’s strife-torn south.
At a press conference yesterday evening, Thai police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri said investigators believed the suspect was “an important person in the network” behind the bombing, Thailand’s worst single mass-casualty attack.
He said the man appeared “similar” to a man caught on CCTV placing a bag at the bomb site and was caught around noon trying to cross into Cambodia from the Thai countryside, away from towns or roads.
Earlier in the day, National Police deputy director Lieutenant General Chhay Sinarith said Cambodia had received no formal request to help, but had boosted security on the border.
Pich Vanna, chief of Cambodian-Thai Border Relations Office at Poipet border crossing, also claimed to know “nothing about the matter”.
Following a slow start to the investigation, plagued by often contradictory statements by Thai police sources, Thai police have issued several arrest warrants, making their first arrest on the weekend.
That man, only identified as a “foreigner” by authorities, was captured during a raid at an apartment containing bomb-making materials.
Another suspect, named by Thai police as 26-year-old Wanna Suansan, was tracked down by reporters in Turkey and denied involvement.
Thai police yesterday issued three more arrest warrants for Turkish suspects related to the case.
Uighurs are ethnically related to Turks, and there is a large community in Turkey. Following the repatriation, protesters stormed the Thai consulate in Istanbul and forced it to close.
If true, the account of the suspect’s arrest in Cambodia and repatriation to Thailand to avoid pressure by China wouldn’t be the first. Last May, Human Rights Watch claimed Cambodian authorities had detained 15 Uighurs in Poipet but sent them across the border into Thailand, from where they were later sent to China.
The Cambodian government denied the incident took place.
Meanwhile, a second suspect said by the unnamed Thai police official to be in Cambodia is accused of tossing a plastic bag with an explosive device from Bangkok’s Sathon pier the same day of the blast.
That bomb did not explode until the next day, and there were no casualties. No more information was released about that man.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP