Thai tensions rise after gun attack on protesters
BANGKOK (AP) — Gunshots rang out in the heart of Thailand’s capital overnight in an apparent attack on anti-government protesters early Wednesday that wounded at least two people and ratcheted up tensions in Thailand’s deepening political crisis.
Most of Bangkok remains unaffected by the latest wave of rallies. But the shooting was the latest in a string of violent incidents that have kept the vast metropolis on edge amid fears the country’s deadlock could spiral out of control.
Bangkok’s emergency services office said one man was hit in the ankle and a woman was hit in the arm in the shooting, which occurred on a street leading to one of Bangkok’s glitziest shopping districts that has been occupied since Monday by camping demonstrators trying to bring down Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government.
Sompong Pongsattha, a 56-year-old resident who witnessed the attack in the Pathumwan district, said about 30 gunshots were fired from an unknown location toward a protest barricade over the course of about two hours. He said only a few demonstrators were there at the time, and the wounded woman had to be carried to another intersection to be taken to a hospital.
In another incident overnight, a small explosive device was hurled into a residential compound owned by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, shattering windows and slightly damaging a roof, according to Police Col. Chumpol Phumphuang and Abhisit’s opposition Democrat Party. No injuries were reported, and Abhisit — who resigned from Parliament last month to join protesters — was not home at the time.
And in the west of the city, several people poured gasoline on a tour bus that had been used by protesters, setting it ablaze, according to Police Col. Napol Kladkhempetch.
Thailand has been wracked by repeated bouts of unrest since the military ousted Yingluck’s brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2006 amid charges of corruption and alleged disrespect for the monarchy. The crisis boiled over again late last year after a failed ruling party bid to push through an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return from exile. Although that effort was quashed, protests intensified, leaving at least eight people dead and more than 450 injured.
Yingluck has tried to ease the crisis by dissolving Parliament and calling for elections on Feb. 2. But there are growing doubts that the vote will take place and both protesters and the main opposition Democrat Party are calling for a boycott. Yingluck’s opponents are demanding she step aside so an interim, non-elected government can take over and implement reforms before any new poll is held.
On Tuesday, Yingluck insisted she wouldn’t quit while the protesters reiterated vows not to negotiate, leaving no way out in sight.
“I’ve stressed many times I have a duty to act according to my responsibility after the dissolution of Parliament,” Yingluck told reporters Tuesday. “I’d like to say right now I am not holding on (to my position) but I have to keep political stability. I’m doing my duty to preserve democracy.”
Yingluck proposed to meet Wednesday with various groups — including her opponents — to discuss a proposal from the Election Commission to postpone the February vote. But protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, the Democrats and even the Election Commission has refused to take part.
Protesters accuse Yingluck of being Thaksin’s puppet, and they accuse her government of corruption and misrule. But the majority of rural poor in Thailand’s countryside, particularly in the north, support the Shinawatra family because of the populist policies it has implemented, including virtually free health care.
The protesters are boycotting the February poll because they know Yingluck’s party would win as it did in 2011. Instead, they are calling for an unelected “people’s council” to amend laws to fight corruption in politics, while an appointed prime minister would help administer the country for up to two years.
Suthep called on supporters Wednesday to shut down all government offices and cut water and electricity to the private residences of Yingluck and her Cabinet “in the next two or three days.”
He also threatened to “detain” Yingluck, saying: “if they are still being obstinate, then we will capture them one by one because the people are not interested in fighting for years.”
Suthep has taken to the protest stage nearly every day for weeks, and has become known for hyperbolic rhetoric that few outside his movement take seriously. In late November, he urged supporters to seize “every ministry” and called on civil servants to report to him. But the calls were ignored and protesters were too few in number and only managed to briefly occupy several government offices and the Finance Ministry.
The International Crisis Group think tank said this week that the protests risked sparking violence that could be “designed to instigate a coup.”
“There is no clear way out,” Crisis Group said. “But there are ways to render a bad situation potentially catastrophic ... Thailand needs leadership to generate the truly inclusive national dialogue required to set it on a stable path.”
The country’s army chief has pointedly refused to rule out a military takeover — always a possibility in a country that has suffered 11 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.