What happens after 7PM, Bangkok time, August 17th 2015? For those in town: a surge of bodies moving as quickly as possible away from Rajaprasong, an undeniable fear exacerbated by the traffic that traps ambulances among rows and rows of cars. For the ones at home: a BBC breaking news article shared multiple times across the news feed, a flurry of social media updates, an almost frenetic pace of messaging and checking on loved ones and distant acquaintances alike. A convergence of movement around a headline: Bangkok bomb.
The news broke almost instantly: a bomb had gone off at the Erawan shrine in the center of town, and 12 people were dead, Ten Thais, one Chinese, and one Filipino. The area was a popular tourist site that was also awash with locals from the nearby shopping malls and central business district. We all followed the news with trepidation; at least once, our footsteps had travelled that very sidewalk as we walked on to Siam Paragon or made our way through Rajaprasong intersection. Another bomb would go off the next day, but even just one was enough. The death toll mounts. As of 18th August, it stands at 22 people, with more than 120 injured.
Steven Herman, correspondent for Voice of America, told CNN that when the explosion first went off, he thought it was thunder. In a sense, this encapsulates the effect this tragedy has had on the Thai people. Despite the relatively contained bomb area, the sound was like thunder — reverberating across the nation and touching even the farthest parts of Bangkok. From 10900 to 10260, the sound ringing in people’s ears long after the blast. Under the cover of night, the thunder rolled over the nation like a dark cloud, and this morning Bangkok woke up shell-shocked, its ears still ringing with the sound.
What happens not just after 7PM, but once the streets have been cleared? There are no more burning motorcycles, and the bodies on the road have been taken away—that of the person thrown 60 feet up the road, and that of the person whose body was torn in two. But amidst the ringing of the bomb’s aftermath, there is a tension that envelopes the nation, a fear amongst its fragmented people that incites a surge of nationalism. “Pray for Bangkok”, people write. “Pray for Bangkok”, people caption below their profile pictures of the national flag, along with the words “stronger together”. “Pray for Bangkok”, a phrase photoshopped onto black and white pictures of the city center in its usual lustrous after-dark glow of movement and excitement.
Yet, on the morning of August 18th, the words don’t seem to be a plea for the city, which goes on as usual. Roads are closed but Chulalongkorn university, situated in the heart of town, remains open, as do other businesses around the cordoned off area. The city remains intact. Instead, it is a plea for the people, for every person in Bangkok, who could’ve been one of the 10, now 22. Pray for us, we write, for the people whose memories are lived amongst the reflected lights of Siam Paragon and Central World as we walk along the BTS skywalk, whose ghosts have squeezed past the never-ending flow of people in front of the Erawan shrine. “I was just there”, says a friend. The phrase is repeated by many; we were all just there, at some point in our lives. The bomb struck not only the heart of the city, but the heart of its people.
It’s still unclear who planted the bomb, and whether the perpetrator had a religious, personal or political motive. For a nation where conflict has always been framed in the political, the immediate sense is that the blast is a rekindling of the violence that happened on this very same site in 2014, when the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) flooded the road with Thai flags to demand the ousting of Yingluck Shinawatra. Earlier, in 2010, the intersection was turned into “the red city” by the Thaksin-allied United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) to demand the ousting of Abhisit Vejjajiva. Already, news has circulated on unofficial news sites like Pantip attributing the bomb to one political group or another. The rumble of the bomb’s thunder reverberates against the fissures of a country whose political scars remain unhealed and whose peace has only been won by a military dictatorship. The thunder could very well cause the fissures to widen once again.
Yet, there is something about the blast’s aftermath that has, in a way, reminded Thais of a reason to remain united. It may just last the first few days, before paranoia and conspiracy theories really gain traction and the media once again inundates Thais with an overflow of, sometimes incorrect, information. But there is a sense of unity in this tension, an undercurrent of Thai nationalism to the fear. Because we were all there—not at 7PM, not this time, but maybe at 5PM, maybe two days ago, maybe a month ago. We were all there: the UDD, the PDRC, and not just in our roles as political animals, but also as ordinary citizens, crossing paths in the capacity of teenagers going to watch a movie at Paragon, office workers at Central World, and tourists at the Grand Hyatt Erawan. Under the safety of those never-ending intersection traffic lights, we jaywalked, we stepped on other people’s shoes, we sweated amongst people we didn’t know and tripped on uneven sidewalks. Even writing from Singapore, it feels like I was just there.
Times like this we are reminded that despite our differences, there is a lived similarity that we all take for granted. The Bangkok bomb may hurt the economy, and may eventually show itself to be another divisive political event for the nation. But in the numbed silence after the blast, the department stores normally filled with people remain empty. All we can hear is the ringing in our ears. And for a brief period, we will all pray for Bangkok, together.