Thai Tourism Sector Must Face, Not Dismiss, the Threat of Terrorism

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Sakchai Lalit / AP

Thai officials examine the damage caused by a blast on Feb. 15, 2012, at the Bangkok house where the suspected bombers were staying

It was hard not to feel for Thailand last week when a group of Iranian men set off three bombs in Bangkok, injuring five people in what police say was a botched attempt to attack Israeli diplomats. But in their bungled attempts at damage control, Thai government officials and tourism executives are doing even more damage to Thailand's reputation than the bombers ever could.

Before police had finished combing through the wreckage of the rented house used by the bombers, government ministers were waging an all-out campaign to deny the incident was terrorism. The Defense Minister said the men were only making bombs, so it wasn't actual terrorism. The Deputy Prime Minister in charge of security said the explosions were merely "symbolic acts." Tell that to the five people who were injured.

Kongkrit Hiranyakit, the president of the Tourism Council of Thailand urged the government to "make it clear to the international community that the bomb blasts in Bangkok had nothing to do with terrorism" and to "present evidence to refute this belief." The problem is that all the evidence suggests otherwise. Only Royal Thai Police Chief Priewpan Damapong and his investigators had the courage and common sense to tell the truth: the discovery of magnets, magnetic sheets and other materials similar to those used in bombings of Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia one day before the Bangkok blasts suggests that the men were potentially part of a broader terrorist plot.

To be fair, there is no internationally agreed-upon definition of terrorism. But when bombs start going off, no parsing of words or twisting of definitions is going to stop people from concluding that terrorism has taken place. Government ministers and tourism executives, presumably well versed in public relations and crisis communications, should know that denying a problem exists and lying about it often does more damage to reputations than the problem itself.

The government and the tourism industry should stress that such incidents are rare in Thailand. Until this year, Thailand had suffered just two instances of international terrorism, both aimed at the Israeli embassy: a 1972 attack by Palestinians and a 1991 failed truck bombing by Iranians linked to Hizballah. But a Lebanese man with alleged ties to Hizballah was arrested with bomb materials in Bangkok in January. Since then, there is little overt evidence of increased security, but the government said security was being tightened at airports and Bangkok's subway system, and that it may have to review the ease with which visas on arrival are issued.

Thailand does depend heavily on tourism dollars, but the industry has proved remarkably resilient, bouncing back after floods, fires, riots and military crackdowns. Undoubtedly, it will bounce back after the bombs. And as it does, transparency is the best policy.