Military, Protesters Clash in Thailand
Wire services are reporting that a gunbattle in a residential area of the Thai capital has caused the first fatality in the political street fighting, according to government and hospital officials.
Late Monday, some of the 6,000 troops deployed in Bangkok began moving toward Government House, where the red-shirted protesters have been holding out since March 26, the Associated Press reported.
It appears unclear from media reports whether the troops fired rubber bullets or live gunshots in the latest face-off between troops and the demonstrators. An emergency decree was issued in Bangkok Sunday.
The demonstrators are demanding new elections and the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, saying his four-month-old government came to power illegally.
Abhisit told the BBC that the government was “in control of the situation.”
“If the people want to demonstrate peacefully, if they want to exercise their constitutional rights they are welcome to do so, but they cannot riot, they cannot incite people to break the law, they cannot intimidate and use violence against other people,” Abhisit told the British news outlet.
The country’s political divide has pitted the military and the urban middle class against a poorer rural majority loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his populist policies.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and is living in exile to avoid jail on a corruption conviction.
In an interview with CNN, Thaksin accused the military of lying about firing blank bullets into the crowd, according to the AP. “They shot people. Many died. Many people were injured,” he said.
”I would like to urge every party that comes together to gather peacefully. War never ended with war,” said Thaksin, who a day earlier telephoned a rally of supporters and called for a “revolution.”
The protesters accuse the country’s elite — including the military, judiciary and other high-ranking officials — of weakening Thailand’s democracy by interfering in politics.
The demonstrators said Monday that they were prepared for a “final stand,” news agencies reported.
“I don’t mind dying right here if it means we become a real democracy. You can kill me right here. I am not here to cause trouble. I just want my rights,” protester Tanyawalai Wongsuriyaneth told the AP.
Armed forces chief Gen. Songkitti Jaggabatara said on nationwide television that soldiers would use “every means to end the chaos” but employ weapons only for self-defense and not “excessively.”
Army spokesperson Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd told the BBC that the soldiers were not firing real bullets at the crowds.
The Emergency Medical Institute of Thailand reported that 94 people, including soldiers, were injured in Monday’s clashes, including 24 who remained hospitalized, Reuters reported.
The clashes came two days after protesters forced the cancellation of a high-profile Asian summit in Thailand, a big embarrassment for Abhisit. Parliament appointed Abhisit to the prime minister post in December after a court ordered the removal of the previous pro-Thaksin government amid accusations of fraud in the 2007 elections.
France, Britain, Australia, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines were among countries that issued travel advisories Monday, urging citizens to avoid trips to Thailand and for those already in Bangkok to stay in their hotels and away from protests.
The Thai New Year, called Songkran, began Monday and is usually a large and joyous celebration in the country. People roam the streets and soak each other with water in the name of the holiday.
The Bangkok municipal government canceled all its festivities, but despite the protests many Thais and foreign tourists in some areas began engaging in the ritualistic water throwing and general partying, the AP reported.