Mystery remains over identity of Thai bombers

Thais and tourists have headed warily into a long holiday weekend as police look for suspects and a motive behind a series of blasts that shook resort towns across Thailand, killing four people and wounding dozens more.

Life is returning to normal in the resort town of Hua Hin after the bombings last week. Photographs: AFP/Getty Images
Life is returning to normal in the resort town of Hua Hin after the bombings last week. Photographs: AFP/Getty Images

There was no claim of responsibility for the attacks on Thursday and Friday, which followed a successful referendum last weekend on a new constitution that critics say will bolster the military’s power for years to come.

The violence appeared aimed at dealing a blow to the country’s tourism industry, which brings in crucial income to the government. One small bomb exploded on a beach in Patong on the island of Phuket and four others rattled the seaside resort city of Hua Hin, prompting businesses to shut their doors, streets to empty and anxious tourists to huddle inside their hotels.

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Eleven foreigners were wounded in the blasts, including nationals of Austria, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

“We hope we may have some suspects today or tomorrow,” Police General Pongsapat Pongcharoen, a deputy national police chief, told reporters yesterday. He did not elaborate, but said police were gathering evidence and that international militant groups were not believed to be behind the attacks.

He said the perpetrators are believed to belong to the same network and were still inside the country.

Police said firebombs also triggered blazes at markets and shops in six places, including Phuket, Trang, Surat Thani, Phang Nga and a souvenir shop in the tourist town of Ao Nang, Krabi, a seaside province known for its stunning limestone cliffs.

Speaking late on Friday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the attacks “struck at the hearts of all Thai people”.

Royal Thai Police Colonel Krisana Patanacharoen also said it was “too early to conclude” who was behind the attacks. But he said the bombings followed “a similar pattern used in the southern parts of the country” – a reference to a low-level insurgency in the country’s largely Islamic south that has ground on for more than a decade and killed more than 5,000 people.

Southern militants fighting for greater autonomy have carried out sophisticated, coordinated attacks before, but most have hit three provinces in the far south that were not among those targeted last week.

The violence occurred ahead of the first anniversary of the 17 August bombing of Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine, which left 20 dead and injured more than 120 others. Thai authorities said that bombing was revenge by a people-smuggling gang whose activities were disrupted by a crackdown, but analysts suspect it might have been the work of Uighur separatists angry that Thailand repatriated more than 100 Uighurs to China.

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Foreign governments, including the United States, issued warnings urging travellers to use caution and avoid affected areas. Many of the tourists interviewed were resuming their holidays while staying alert for any sign of trouble.

“We feel pretty safe. At first we had a lot of mixed feelings, because we didn’t know the area well enough,” said Lexus Chlorad, 21, from New York, after arriving in Hua Hin on Friday afternoon.

Carl Suensson, 68, from Sweden, said that “today it’s pretty okay, but yesterday was scary”.

“We follow the news 24 hours. Wherever there’s a lot of people, like the market, bars behind Hilton, the train station, we try to avoid it,” he added.

The first bomb exploded in the southern province of Trang – an area full of beautiful beaches and tourist islands – killing one person and injuring six, according to police.

Then, on Thursday night, attackers in Hua Hin hid bombs on a busy street filled with bars and restaurants, planting them inside two potted plants, and 
detonated them by remote control about half an hour apart.

One Thai woman was killed and about 20 people were wounded, 11 of them foreigners.

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Friday’s blast took place on a public holiday marking the birthday of Thailand’s Queen Sirikit.

The junta has repeatedly said that defending the monarchy is a top priority, and the army and its allies are eager to ensure a smooth succession for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch.