Ex-Premier Thaksin’s party denies role in Thai blasts as police hunt suspects

Thai members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and other officials inspect the scene where a bomb exploded at a Police box station in the Patong beach area, in Phuket province on Aug 12.
Thai members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and other officials inspect the scene where a bomb exploded at a Police box station in the Patong beach area, in Phuket province on Aug 12.PHOTO: EPA

BANGKOK/HUA HIN (Reuters, AFP) – The Thai political party whose governments have been overthrown by the country’s ruling generals denied on Saturday (Aug 13) having any role in the bomb attacks on popular tourist destinations that killed four people and wounded dozens.  

The kingdom was on edge after 11 small bombs exploded across five southern provinces on Thursday night and Friday morning, killing four locals and wounding more than 30 people - including foreign tourists.

The bombs, most of them detonated in twin blasts, struck key tourism hubs during a long weekend, including the seaside resort town of Hua Hin and the island of Phuket.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but police have ruled out international terrorism and said the campaign was an act of "local sabotage".

The blasts came days after Thais voted to accept a military-backed constitution that paves the way for an election at the end of 2017.  

Analysts say suspicion would inevitably on fall on enemies of the ruling junta beaten in the referendum or insurgents from Muslim-majority provinces in the south of the mostly Buddhist country.  

Fears that followers of former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, including an opposition movement sympathetic to the Shinawatras known as the“red shirts”, could be blamed prompted a senior figure in their Puea Thai Party to issue a sharp denial.

“People, through social media, are sending messages saying Thaksin Shinawatra is behind these events,” Noppadon Pattama, a former foreign minister, said.

“This is slander and defamation. Anyone who is a former prime minister is worried about the country and would not do such evil,” said Noppadon, who served in both Thaksin and Yingluk’s Cabinets.  

No group has claimed responsibility for the wave of bombings, which sent shudders through the tourism industry, one of the few bright spots in Thailand’s sluggish economy.  

For more than a decade Thailand has been divided between populist political forces led by Thaksin, who was toppled in a 2006 coup, and the royalist and military establishment, which accuses him of corruption.  

His sister Yingluk swept to power in an election in 2011, before being ousted in another coup in 2014.  

At last Sunday’s referendum voters in Thaksin’s northeast stronghold voted to reject the constitution, which opponents of the junta said would entrench the military’s power and deepen divisions.  

Voters in three mostly Muslim southern provinces, where separatists have been fighting with the military for than a decade in an insurgency that has cost 6,500 lives, also voted against the new constitution, while the rest of the country accepted it.  

The bombs on Thursday and Friday went off in the upscale resort of Hua Hin and beach destinations in the south including Phuket, Phang Nga and Surat Thani, a city that is the gateway to popular islands in the Gulf of Thailand.  

Police and Thailand’s foreign ministry initially ruled out links to Islamist terrorism and foreign terror groups, though national police chief Jakthip Chaijinda later told reporters that the devices were similar to those used by Muslim separatists.  

Pongsapat Pongcharoen, a deputy national police chief, told reporters on Saturday that no arrests had been made, but DNA samples collected at the blast sites would be compared with DNA samples stored in databases in the southern Muslim provinces.

If the Muslim rebels are to blame, it would mark a major expansion of a secessionist campaign that has been concentrated further south and rarely targets foreigners.

Analysts said it would also be a huge embarrassment to Thailand's coup-installed military government, which has made boosting national security a flagship policy of its regime.

In hardest-hit Hua Hin, a popular beach resort rocked by four bombs in 24 hours, locals braced for a blow to the town's mainstay industry ahead of peak tourist season.

"Hua Hin has never had a problem like this," Nai Amporn, the owner of a beachside restaurant, told AFP.

"I am afraid business will become slow - even this morning, you can see there are less people here for breakfast. I think they have all gone home," he added.

Hua Hin, about 200km south of Bangkok, is a popular stop for local and foreign travellers. It 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, a source of anxiety for many Thais and a key factor in the kingdom's past decade of political turmoil.

The blasts erupted on the eve of Queen Sirikit's 84th birthday, also celebrated as Mother's Day in Thailand.

Famed for its idyllic islands and Buddhist temples, Thailand is a tourism powerhouse and was hoping for a record 32 million visitors in 2016.

The industry accounts for at least 10 percent of a lagging economy that the military government, which came to power in 2014, has struggled to invigorate.

Anthony Davis, a security analyst at IHS Jane's, said the bombings were aimed at the heart of the tourism sector.

"My assessment is that this whole operation was targeted on one thing: Thailand's tourist economy. This will have a significant impact on the tourist season in the south this year and into early 2017," he told AFP.

Thailand's reputation as a holidaymaker's paradise has in recent years weathered bus and boat accidents, bouts of political unrest and high-profile crimes against foreigners.

After the latest bombings, two Swiss travel companies, Hotelplan Suisse and Kuoni Suisse, said clients with trips to Thailand before Aug 15 could change or cancel their plans for free, according to Swiss public broadcaster RTS.

In the past, the industry has shown a knack for rebounding quickly.

An August 2015 bombing at Bangkok's Erawan shrine that killed 20 people - mostly tourists including a Singaporean - was followed by a sudden drop in visitors but did not stop the kingdom from welcoming a record high of nearly 30 million travellers that year.