A bombing spree targeting Thailand’s tourist hotspots, in the latest setback for a nation that has endured a decade of turmoil, has sent authorities scrambling to identify a motive and find the perpetrators.
By yesterday there had been 11 blasts in 24 hours, extending from the southern town of Trang right up to Hua Hin, the genteel seaside town which is home to the revered royal family’s summer palace.
The string of bomb attacks in popular tourist towns across Thailand has left four dead and many wounded, with authorities yesterday ruling out terrorism despite suspicions that insurgents in the kingdom’s deep south are responsible.
In the normally peaceful resort town of Hua Hin, blood-spattered tourists were treated by rescue workers as forensic teams picked through the rubble, with police scrambling to reassure visitors the situation was under control.
“This is not a terrorist attack. It is just local sabotage that is restricted to limited areas and provinces,” national police deputy spokesman Piyapan Pingmuang said in Bangkok.
No one has claimed responsibility for the 11 bombings, and the seemingly coordinated attack across five provinces does not match common patterns of violence in the turbulent nation which is under military rule.
Analysts said Muslim insurgent groups could be responsible, but that the targeting of tourists far from their stronghold would be an unprecedented escalation in a simmering conflict largely contained to the southern border region.
Some observers said that antijunta forces could be plotting to discredit the regime, which has staked its reputation on bringing stability to the kingdom.
“The bombs are an attempt to create chaos and confusion,” Prime Minister Prayut Chan-OCha said as he called for calm.
Britain and Australia reacted by advising their nationals to avoid public places.
Worst hit was Hua Hin, which was rocked by two sets of twin bombs – one pair on Thursday night and the second yesterday morning. Two people were killed and more than 20 wounded, including foreigners.
A further two blasts struck yesterday at Patong beach on the popular tourist island of Phuket, and three more were reported further south – two in the southern town of Surat Thani, killing one, and one more in Trang, which also left one dead.
A Thai police spokesman said a total of 10 foreign tourists had been wounded, including two Italians and one Austrian.
Embassies in Bangkok said four Dutch and three Germans were also among the wounded.
“It was very shocking. There was a loud noise and police were running everywhere, it was terrible,” Australian tourist Michael Edwards said. He was staying in a guest house in Hua Hin.
Hua Hin, which lies about 200km south of Bangkok, is popular with both local and foreign travellers and was for years the favourite seaside retreat of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch.
The 88-year-old is currently hospitalised in Bangkok for a number of health issues, a key factor in the kingdom’s past decade of political turmoil.
The blasts erupted on the eve of Queen Sirikit’s 84th birthday, which is also celebrated as Mother’s Day in Thailand.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political expert with Chulalongkorn University, said the attacks were a “blatant challenge to the military”, which has ruled over Thailand since ultra-royalist generals seized power in 2014.
The attacks came less than a week after the junta saw its draft of a new constitution approved in a referendum.
But rights groups criticised bans on debate and campaigning in the lead-up to the poll, calling it far from free or fair.
The “deep south” — the three southern border provinces home to a long-running Muslim insurgency against the majority-Buddhist state – voted down the constitution.
An expert on Southeast Asian militant groups, Zachary Abuza, said that while the southern insurgents had not carried out coordinated attacks for years, it was possible “a small cell” was behind this assault.
“Whoever has perpetrated these wants to do serious damage to the Thai economy. That is where the junta is the most vulnerable,” Abuza said.
Deputy police spokesman Krissana Pattanacharoen said the improvised explosives were similar in style to those used in the deep south but it was too early to draw conclusions.
The country’s reputation as the “Land of Smiles” has suffered in recent years from political unrest, including small-scale bombings, transportation accidents and a number of high-profile crimes against foreigners. But tourists continue to flock there.
The latest blasts came just days before the first anniversary of the last major attack on tourists in Thailand – an August 17 bomb that killed 20 people at a Hindu shrine in Bangkok.