Thai Media Question US and Official Narrative of Hezbollah Suspect

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Atris Hussein (C) a Swedish-Lebanese man suspected of planning an attack in Bangkok is escorted by Thai policemen as he arrives at Criminal Court in Bangkok on 17 January 2012. (Photo: AFP - Pairoj)

By: Sabah Ayoub

Published Monday, January 23, 2012

The Thai press has been critical of the way their government has handled the case of Hussein Atris, a Lebanese-Swedish national accused of planning an attack in Bangkok.

“Terrorist Attack!” and “Imminent Security Threat: Embassies Warn Their Citizens in Bangkok” are not headlines you see often in the Thai press.

Usually, media coverage of security threats merely consists of statements by government officials who reveal the incident and reassure citizens that “everything is under control.”

There is a general consensus in the country on the necessity of maintaining the trust of tourists and investors, as well as the importance of not importing international conflicts into the country.

The Thai media, therefore, has been struggling with Atris’ case ever since his arrest around midnight on Thursday, January 12. Reporting on the case has been further complicated due to pressure from the US and Israel.

The Thai press seems to be troubled by the case for two reasons: First, by the way the authorities have handled the case and the confusion that has marred official statements; and second, by the unusual sensationalizing of the incident by US authorities.

Several Thai newspapers, like the Bangkok Post, The Nation, AsiaOne, Pattaya Mail, Phuket Gazette, as well as the MCOT TV website are wondering why is that the US embassy has not lifted the terror attack warning to its citizens in Thailand.

Thai journalists, political leaders, and military personnel did not adopt the Israeli media’s story that Atris — purportedly backed by Hezbollah — was planning to target Israeli figures and civilians in Bangkok.

They are also reluctant to accept the US State Department’s characterization of the incident as a “terrorist operation” or “a plot for a terrorist bombing” in the Thai capital.

Perhaps the motivation behind the Thai media’s skepticism towards the “terror plot” theory has to do with concerns about damaging the country’s important tourism industry.

However, some journalists have written about the role of US authorities in the case, saying that “it appeared strange and unusual from the very first moment,” as Supalak Ganjanakhundee described it in The Nation newspaper.

He writes that usually “security officials nab the suspects once they get tip-offs from concerned countries, usually the United States, and then quietly have them deported, by-passing the Thai legal procedure. All the public gets to learn is that the case is done and over with.”

“However, the latest case seems to have gone the other way. The issue was circulated in the intelligence community for days and later acknowledged by Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung and Defence Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapha,” he adds.

“There is nothing abnormal about an embassy issuing a warning, except this time it was issued at around the same time as the threat was discovered and contained. The warning was still visible on the US Embassy’s website yesterday [January 17, five days after Atris’ arrest], as if the threat was still far from over,” Ganjanakhundee adds.

In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Kachadpai Burusapatana, former Director General of the Thai National Security Council, said he believed the US warning about possible terror attacks here remains in place because the US wants Thailand to collaborate more with it against terrorism.

The newspaper adds that the “US wants Thailand to let its investigators join in the questioning of terror suspect Hussein Atris, who was arrested at Suvarnabhumi airport last Thursday and suspected of having links to the Hezbollah militant group.”

Burusapatana also told the Bangkok Post that the police should avoid publicizing the issue too much if they had not gathered clear evidence.

In his view, the newspaper reported, the “evidence was insufficient to point to terrorist plots in Thailand, and careless handling of the issue could get Thailand embroiled in a conflict between the US and terrorists.”

In an opinion piece in the Bangkok Post on January 19, columnist Kumfah Manmalee commented that “Thailand has long been known as a haven for tourists as well as those who want to exploit its legal loopholes. Fake goods and documents can be bought on the streets and people travel freely across our borders with neighboring countries.”

“But Thailand has not faced any real threat from international terrorists for quite some time. Threats of violence are all home-grown. The arrest of Mr. Hussein is therefore cause for concern. Though I wonder why the US government issued the warnings without first consulting its Thai counterpart,” he added.

On the other hand, several commentators from The Nation and Bangkok Post denounced “the state of confusion and inexperience” demonstrated by political and security officials in their handling of the situation.

“The last thing our politicians need is the issue of Middle Eastern terror suspects, almost half a ton of explosive materials, and an impatient American diplomatic corps. Not to mention an Israeli sub-plot,” wrote Tulsathit Taptim in The Nation.

“Are we supposed to be excited, or even afraid?” he asks. “The government appears to say ‘no’, but America appears to say ‘yes’.”

Deputy news editor Kultida Samabuddhi of the Bangkok Post, for her part, admits that “the tourism industry and those who are working in the hospitality business deserve utmost protection,” but warns the government “not sacrifice public safety for the sake of more tourism revenues and higher numbers of tourist arrivals.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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