Deadly bomb blasts that ripped through holiday resorts and other areas in southern Thailand have abruptly ended the ruling generals’ delight at winning a contentious constitutional referendum just days earlier. 

The images of bloodied Thais and tourists as they began a holiday weekend is a severe setback evident in officials’ desperate insistence that the apparently co-ordinated attacks were not terrorism.

While the death toll of four is smaller than the 20 killed in a bombing at a popular Bangkok shrine a year ago next week, the number and geographic scope of the devices detonated on Thursday evening and Friday were on a greater scale. Although there is no suggestion Isis or any affiliated group is active in Thailand, the country's mix of a thriving tourist industry, domestic political tensions and patchy law enforcement record makes it a potential target. 

General Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the 2014 military coup and now prime minister, told reporters: “Why now, when the country is getting better, the economy is getting better and tourism is getting better? We have to ask why and who did it.”

Dozens of people, including at least 10 foreigners, were wounded in the explosions on the eve and morning of Friday’s national holiday for Queen Sirikit's 84th birthday, a particularly auspicious anniversary in Buddhist culture because it is a multiple of twelve.

Authorities said the most concentrated attacks were two sets of twin blasts at the Hua Hin resort on the Gulf of Thailand, where the Queen and her husband King Bhumibol Adulyadej have traditionally stayed at the Klai Kangwon, or “far from worries”, palace. At least two people died in Hua Hin, including a Thai woman in an explosion near a bar late on Thursday.

Police said another blast happened near the popular Patong beach on the holiday island of Phuket, wounding one person, while two more bombs exploded outside a market in Phang Na. One person died in each of the further attacks in Trang province and outside two police stations in Surat Thani, a gateway to famous islands such as Koh Samui.

Authorities said the wounded included citizens of Germany, Italy and Austria. The Netherlands said four of its nationals were injured.

Officials tried to play down the impact on Thailand's fast-growing tourist industry, which expects to receive 32m visitors this year, accounts for about a tenth of gross domestic product and is a rare bright spot in an otherwise sluggish economy. The foreign ministry said the bombings were “an act of stirring up public disturbance” and were “not linked to terrorism”. 

The latest assault comes after the generals in Bangkok won backing in Sunday's tightly controlled referendum for a new constitution that will entrench their powers even after elections they have pledged next year. Deadly violence has scarred the past decade’s on-off political crisis between duelling factions aligned with the traditional political elite and Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire ex-prime minister, but never through bombings on this scale.

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The technique of using twin blasts is typical of the long-running localised bombing campaigns mounted by separatist insurgents in the deep south, although these have not targeted tourist areas outside the main conflict zone with such intensity. The region voted against the new constitution and bomb blasts were reported there in the run-up to polling day. 

The questions over this week’s blasts are a reminder of the uncertainties still swirling around the explosion at Bangkok’s Erawan shrine almost a year ago, which appeared to be targeted at the visitors from elsewhere in Asia who flock to the site. More than two-thirds of the dead were foreigners, many of them from mainland China or Hong Kong. 

Many analysts suspect that assault was linked to Thailand’s much-criticised deportation to China the previous month of more than 100 members of the Uighur ethnic group, who say they are persecuted by the government — a charge Beijing denies. The two suspects charged in Thailand over the blast are both Uighurs, although authorities have claimed previously they carried out the attack in revenge after a people smuggling ring they were running was busted.

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