Hua Hin—A string of bomb attacks targeting Thailand’s crucial tourism industry have killed four people, authorities said Friday, sending authorities scrambling to identify a motive and find the perpetrators.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha called for calm and said he did not know who was behind the attacks, while analysts tentatively pointed the finger at Muslim insurgent groups in the south who have for years been fighting the Thai state.
Twin bombs exploded in the upscale resort of Hua Hin late Thursday, killing one woman and wounding more than 20 others, including nine foreign tourists, and were followed by two more on Friday morning that killed another person.
Agence France Presse journalists saw injured and bleeding people lying on the pavements shortly after the latest explosions, as emergency workers rushed to the scene and took them away in ambulances.
A further two blasts struck Friday at Patong Beach on the popular tourist island of Phuket, while two more bombs were reported in the southern towns of Trang and Surat Thani, in each of which one person was killed.
“The bombs are an attempt to create chaos and confusion,” Prayut told reporters. “We should not make people panic more.”
“Why have the bombs occurred as our country is heading towards stability, a better economy and tourism—and who did it? You have to find out,” he added.
The two bombs that went off in Hua Hin on Thursday were hidden in potted plants and went off within 30 minutes of each other in the bar district of the popular beach town.
While small bombings are common in the kingdom during periods of heightened political tension, there have been few such incidents in the past year and it is rare for tourists to be targeted.
Britain and Australia reacted by advising their nationals to avoid public places.
Hua Hin is home to the Klai Kangwon (Far From Worries) summer palace of Thailand’s revered royal family, and the firsts blasts came on the eve of Queen Sirikit’s 84th birthday and just ahead of the first anniversary of a Bangkok shrine bombing that killed 20.
Hua Hin’s district chief, Sutthipong Klai-udom, told AFP that the first bombs were detonated by mobile phone. Staff at local hospitals said German, Italian, Dutch and Austrian nationals were among the wounded.
“It was very shocking. There was a loud noise and police were running everywhere, it was terrible,” said Michael Edwards, an Australian tourist staying in a guest house close to where the second bomb detonated.
“I was just surprised that it happened here… now I’m thinking if it’s worth staying,” he told AFP.
Hua Hin is an upscale resort town about 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Bangkok, popular with both local and foreign tourists.
The palace there has for years been favored by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch.
The 88-year-old is currently hospitalized in Bangkok for a number of health issues, a source of anxiety for many Thais and a key factor in the kingdom’s past decade of political turmoil.
Paul Chambers, an expert on the Thai military, said rebels from the south were prime suspects in the blasts.
“The culprits are most likely Malay-Muslim insurgent groups fighting the Thai state in the deep south,” he said.
“The attack on Hua Hin seems like a direct affront at the Kingdom of Thailand. Hua Hin is home to a royal palace… also, the bombing comes on the queen’s birthday.”
Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian militant groups, said that although the southern insurgents had not carried out coordinated attacks for years, “it’s not that they haven’t or couldn’t, it’s just been a while”.
“Whoever has perpetrated these wants to do serious damage to the Thai economy. That is where the junta is the most vulnerable.”
Thailand’s military rulers, who seized power in 2014 after a decade of at times violent political unrest, have touted an increase in stability in the kingdom as a major accomplishment of its rule.
The junta on Sunday saw its new version of the constitution approved in a referendum, although the three insurgency-hit provinces rejected the controversial statute.
Thailand’s reputation as the “Land of Smiles” has suffered in recent years from political unrest and a number of high-profile crimes against foreigners.
But tourists continue to flock to its white, sandy beaches and Buddhist temples.
The kingdom is expecting a record 32 million visitors in 2016, with the tourism industry a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster economy.
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, mostly ethnic Chinese tourists.
That blast ripped through a crowded Hindu shrine in the heart of Bangkok and stunned the kingdom as the deadliest assault in recent history.
Two Uighur men from western China have been accused of the attack and are due to go on trial later this month. Both have denied any involvement.