Attack on Thai statue seen as bad omen for beleaguered Thaksin

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A worse omen would be hard to imagine for Thailand's beleaguered Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is fighting for his political future in elections on 2 April.

Shortly after midnight, a mentally disturbed former soldier took a hammer to the gilded four-headed Brahma statue at Erawan, shattering the most popular religious icon in Bangkok, said to bestow prosperity. To Thais, it was nearly as traumatic as when the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 or an Australian tourist destroyed Michelangelo's Pieta scupture in Rome back in 1972.

Onlookers sprinted after Thanakorn Pakdeepol, 27, and beat him to death at one of the capital's busiest intersections. The vandal, an urban Muslim with a medical history of depression, was found comatose just 100m from the shrine and police said he died on the way to hospital.

Two street cleaners were arrested for involvement in his murder, Police Colonel Suphisal Pakdinarunaj told reporters. According to his father, Saiyan Pakdeepol, the attacker was unusually tense and had fled the house at midnight after suffering a nervous breakdown.

Wandee Vichai, a garland seller who saw the incident said: "I saw him climb over the fence and use a hammer to hit the statue. I started to scream and two sweepers chased after the man. When I caught up with them, he was lying on the pavement."

As a white sheet shrouded the empty pedestal of Phra Prom at Erawan, Bangkok worshippers were agog. Yellow crime scene tape supplemented the garlands of marigold, orchids and lotus blossoms draped around the Hindu idol's base, and bypassers attempted to counteract the sudden misfortune by lighting thousands of josssticks. Clouds of scent wafted over the traffic fumes all afternoon.

For the past 50 years, Erawan has been held sacred by ordinary Thais, who give offerings of flowers or carved wooden elephants in exchange for wishes granted. Everyone from princesses to paupers has access to walk around the postmodern shrine. Thousands of eclectic worshippers arrive daily - Buddhist, Christian, Hindus or moderate Muslims - and view this statue as a lucky talisman in the heart of the city.

Erawan's Bhrama image, with its four gilded faces representing kindness, mercy, sympathy, and impartiality, became cherished as an unlikely symbol of spirituality in modern Bangkok, nestled under the skytrain tracks, and dwarfed by skyscrapers and shopping malls.

When government contractors began to build a luxury hotel in the early 50s, the ambitious project was dogged by calamity, ranging from cost overruns to maimed labourers. Superstitious owners, who already had tried to appease malignant local spirits with a typical Thai spirit house, were horrified when a shipload of Italian marble, imported for the lobby, sunk offshore. They consulted a high priest, and ultimately erected a shrine to Brahma, the Hindu deity. Because accidents stopped abruptly after its completion in 1956, the shrine's reputation for potency spread.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said he was "appalled" by the wanton destruction of the image and ordered that it be restored within a month, according to the Deputy Prime Minister, Surakiart Sathirathai.