Thai police say coordinated blasts at tourist spots ‘not linked to terrorism’

Officials say it is too soon to say who was behind the attacks but they are sure they weren’t carried out by Islamists

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 August, 2016, 2:55pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 August, 2016, 11:22pm

A wave of coordinated explosions rattled multiple cities across southern Thailand, killing at least four people and wounding dozens more, police said on Friday. Among the injured were 10 foreigners in the seaside resort town of Hua Hin.

It was not clear who was behind the attacks, but police said the violence was not linked to Islamic terrorism. The timing and scope suggested the bombs were set off by opponents of the Southeast Asian nation’s ruling junta, which last weekend organised a successful referendum on a constitution that critics say will bolster the military’s power for years to come.

The explosions all occurred south of Bangkok and several of the blasts – including one on Patong beach in the tourist resort of Phuket – appeared designed to hit the tourism industry.

Bombs in Thai resort towns kill four, injure 19, including foreigners

Thailand’s economy has sagged since the military seized power in a 2014 coup, but tourism has remained one of the few bright spots, with more than 14 million people visiting in 2016 so far – up from 12.5 million the year before.

The first two explosions occurred overnight on a busy street in the tourist city of Hua Hin, which was hit again by another blast on Friday morning. The city is home to a swath of beachfront resorts as well as a royal palace.

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Police and Thai media reported other blasts the southern cities of Phuket, Trang and Surat Thani.

Royal Thai Police official Colonel Krisana Patanacharoen said it was too soon to say who was behind the attacks, but “we are sure that it is not linked to terrorism”.

Friday’s blast took place on 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 keen to ensure a smooth succession for ailing 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is the world’s longest reigning monarch.

Tourist Shane Brett told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from his hotel room in Hua Hin that there was panic after the first explosion, which police said killed one Thai woman and wounded about 20 others, half of them foreigners.

“I was at a bar in the main bar district in Hua Hin right outside the Hilton Hotel and at first I heard kind of a bang ... and everyone kind of panicked,” Brett said.

He looked outside the bar and said he saw people running. Half an hour later, he made it back to his hotel. On the way, he said he saw “a good few people injured and the whole area just panicking ... the whole area was just shut down with police cars, ambulances”.

The bombs on Thursday were set off by remote control, half an hour apart, according to Police General Sithichai Srisopacharoenrath, the superintendent of police in Hua Hin, and his deputy, Lieutenant General Samer Yousamran.

Sithichai said both devices were hidden inside plants on a street filled with restaurants, bars and food vendors that is popular with tourists and local residents. He said a Samsung cell phone had been recovered that they believe was used to detonate at least one the bombs.

The fatality Thursday was described in Thai media as a female street food vendor. Several of the injured were in serious condition, the reports said. Police Lieutenant Chaiyot Tisawong, an officer in Hua Hin, said 10 of the injured were foreigners. Their nationalities were not immediately known.

On Friday morning, two more bombs exploded in Hua Hin, killing one person and wounding four, according to police.

Another pair of bombs exploded in front of two police stations half an hour apart in Surat Thani in southern Thailand.

Hong Kong authorities said no tour groups from the city had been affected by the attacks, while travel agents warned people to be vigilant.

China’s state media reported that there were no Chinese citizens killed or injured in the bombings, citing the embassy in Bangkok.

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In Hong Kong, Travel Industry Council Executive Director Joseph Tung Yiu-chung told the South China Morning Post that there were several Hong Kong tour groups with about 130 people in Hua Hin when the blasts happened and all of them were safe. Another 50 tours of about 1,200 people are scheduled to visit the town throughout the rest of the month. Tung said the council had not received any requests for assistance from travel agents.

“We have advised tour guides to keep tourists [in Thailand] away from [crowds] at night,” he said.

Jason Wong, a director at Hong Thai Travel, said a tour with some 30 people organised by the company are in Hua Hin and all of them are safe. They are scheduled to fly back to Hong Kong on Friday as scheduled. Wong said the explosions would not affect the company’s tours to Thailand.

EGL Tours executive director Steve Heun said a 29-person tour to Hua Hin next week will go ahead as the government has not issued any more travel alerts. He said it was too early to tell whether the business of Thailand trips would be affected and told people visiting the country to be vigilant.

The Hong Kong government issued a “yellow” outbound travel alert to Thailand in September 2015, a month after a bomb exploded near Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine, killing 20 people. The yellow alert is the lowest of three risk levels for Hong Kong travellers and means threats exists and travellers should be alert. The Security Bureau advised people who are planning to visit the country or are already there to be careful and pay attention to announcements by local authorities and also avoid large groups of people.

Earlier on Thursday, another bomb blew up in the southern province of Trang, killing one person and injuring six, according to Thai press reports.

Trang is on the fringes of Thailand’s deep south, where a low-level Muslim separatist insurgency had killed more than 5,000 people since 2004. Almost all the violence has been in the three southernmost provinces.

Thailand has been plagued by political violence, including several bombings, since the populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 military coup after demonstrations accused him of corruption, abuse of power and insulting King Bhumibol.

Thaksin’s ouster set off sometimes bloody battles for power between his supporters and opponents, who include the military. The government of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister in 2011, was ousted in the country’s last coup in 2014.

On Sunday, Thai voters approved a referendum on a new constitution that is supposed to lead to an election next year. Critics say it is undemocratic and is fashioned to keep the military in control for at least five more years even if a free election is held.

In a speech on Wednesday night, junta chief and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha took credit for bringing stability back to Thailand after an extended period of unrest.

Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd, a junta spokesman, said Prayuth “expressed his sadness over the unexpected and tragic incident [in Hua Hin]” and said ordered police and soldiers in the area to step up security measures.

Additional reporting by Nikki Sun