BANGKOK, Thailand – Police in Thailand fought off mobs of rock-throwing protesters armed with petrol bombs who tried to battle their way into the government’s heavily-fortified headquarters Sunday, as gunshots rang out in Bangkok and the prime minister fled a police complex during the sharpest escalation yet of the country’s latest crisis.
The protests, aimed at toppling Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration, have renewed fears of prolonged instability in one of Southeast Asia’s biggest economies. Sunday marked the first time police have used force since demonstrations began in earnest a week ago – a risky strategy that many fear could trigger more bloodshed.
At least four people have been killed and 103 injured in skirmishes so far, according to police and the state’s emergency medical services. The deaths occurred at a Bangkok stadium where shooting was heard Sunday for the second day and the body of one protester shot in the chest lay face-up on the ground.
Yingluck spent the morning in meetings at a Bangkok police complex but evacuated to an undisclosed location and cancelled an interview with reporters after more than a hundred protesters attempted to break into the compound, according to her secretary, Wim Rungwattanajinda.
Several demonstrators interviewed by The Associated Press, however, were unaware Yingluck was inside. Those who made it a few steps into the vast complex stayed only a few minutes, and Wim said they did not get anywhere near the heavily protected building where Yingluck was located.
The unrest forced several of Bangkok’s biggest and glitziest shopping malls to close in the heart of the city and snarled traffic. Mobs also besieged at least three television stations demanding they broadcast the protesters’ views and not the government’s. One of those TV stations is government run, the other is owned by the military and the third is independent.
With skirmishes around Yingluck’s office at Government House continuing as darkness fell, the government advised Bangkok residents to stay indoors overnight for their safety.
Political instability has plagued Thailand since the military ousted Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, in a 2006 coup. Two years later, anti-Thaksin demonstrators occupied Bangkok’s two airports for a week after taking over the prime minister’s office for three months, and in 2010 pro-Thaksin protesters occupied downtown Bangkok for weeks in a standoff that ended with parts of the city in flames and more than 90 dead.
Any further deterioration is likely to scare away investors as well as tourists who come to Thailand by the millions and contribute 10 per cent to the $602 billion economy, Southeast Asia’s second largest after Indonesia. It is also likely to undermine Thailand’s democracy, which had built up in fits and starts interrupted by coups.
The latest unrest began last month after an ill-advised bid by Yingluck’s ruling Pheu Thai party to push an amnesty law through Parliament that would have allowed the return of her self-exiled brother, who was overthrown after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin lives in Dubai to avoid a two-year jail term for a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated.
The bill failed to pass the upper house of parliament, emboldening protesters, who drew 100,000 people to a mass rally in Bangkok one week ago. Then, over the past week, they seized the Finance Ministry, camped at a sprawling government office complex, cut power to the national police headquarters and briefly broken into the army headquarters compound to urge the military to support them.
The demonstrators, who accuse Yingluck of being her brother’s puppet, mainly support the opposition Democrat Party. They want to replace Yingluck’s elected government with an unelected “people’s council,” but they have been vague about what that means.
Some of Sunday’s most dramatic scenes played out in front of Government House, where more than 1,000 protesters wearing bandanas and plastic bags over their heads skirmished with riot police with shields who fired rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas over barricades that separated them. Protesters clipped away at coils of barbed wire that surrounded the compound, pushed over barriers and at one point tried to drag one way with a green rope tied to a truck.
One Associated Press cameraman filming the mayhem was hit in the hand by a rock and the leg by a rubber bullet.
A few kilometres (miles) away, police drove back another crowd of protesters at the Bangkok police bureau.
“We’re all brothers and sisters,” police shouted through a loudspeaker before firing tear gas. “Please don’t try to come in!”
Until this weekend, the demonstrations have largely been peaceful. But tensions rose Saturday night after rival groups clashed in a northeastern Bangkok neighbourhood where a large pro-government rally was being held in a stadium. Dozens were wounded, and unidentified gunmen also shot and killed several people.
Pro-government supporters left the stadium Sunday, but gunshots were fired in the same area early the same day. It was not clear who was responsible or targeted, said police Col. Narongrit Promsawat. Wutthisak Larpcharoensap, the rector of nearby Ramkhamhaeng University, said at least some of shots were fired toward the school.
Yingluck’s government, weary of past bloodshed, has gone to painstaking lengths to avoid using force. But they appeared to have drawn a red line at Government House, and on Sunday fought back for the first time, both there and at the headquarters of Bangkok city police.
Army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha – who said last week the army would not take sides – urged the police not to use force and also called on protesters to avert violence, according to Lt. Col. Winthai Suvaree, an army spokesman.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban had earlier vowed that Sunday would mark the end of the campaign with protesters declaring a “victory day.” But in a televised statement late in the day, he called on protesters to press on.
“We would like to demand that the government and the police … return the power to the people,” Suthep said, in a news conference from an occupied government complex that houses key offices including the constitutional Court.
Most of the protesters are middle-class Bangkok residents who have been part of the anti-Thaksin movement for several years and people brought in from the Democrat Party strongholds in the southern provinces.
Because Yingluck’s party has overwhelming electoral support from the country’s rural majority, which benefited from Thaksin’s populist programs, the protesters want to change the country’s political system to a less democratic one where the educated and well-connected would have a greater say than directly elected lawmakers.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck, Jocelyn Gecker, Papitchaya Boonngok, Yves Dam Van, and Raul Gallego Abellan contributed to this report.
© The Associated Press, 2013