Fresh violence erupted in the Thai capital Friday after a government attempt to blockade anti-government protesters and an assassination attempt on a rogue general supporting them triggered nightlong street clashes that killed one person.
The violence, which so far has claimed 30 lives and injured hundreds, plunged Thailand deeper into political uncertainty, with both sides hardening their positions.
Gunshots rang out throughout the night and into the morning in central Bangkok. At daybreak, a group of protesters captured and vandalised two military water cannon trucks at the intersection of Sathorn and Rama IV roads in the heart of the business district. They ripped the cannon from its moorings and used its plastic barrel to shoot firecrackers from behind a sandbag bunker they had commandeered from soldiers.
The so-called Red Shirt protesters, who have taken over an upscale 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) area in central Bangkok, vowed they will not give up until the government resigns and early elections are called.
“I’m not scared. We are here only to ask for democracy. Why are we facing violence?” Mukda Saelim, 39, a mushroom farmer from Chonburi province, said. “I don’t have anything to fight them, but I’m not afraid. You asked if this is safe? It’s not.”
The Red Shirts believe prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s coalition government came to power illegitimately through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military. They are demanding he dissolve Parliament immediately and call new elections.
Chances of a compromise dimmed further after renegade army Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol, who is accused of creating a paramilitary force for the Red Shirts, was shot in the head Thursday evening. He was talking to reporters just inside the perimeter of the protesters’ encampment in Saladeng when the bullet hit him.
He was taken to a hospital in a coma and was in critical condition. The hospital said his brain had swollen and he was unlikely to survive.
It was not known who shot Khattiya, better known by the nickname Seh Daeng. But the Red Shirts blamed the government.
“This is illegal use of force ordered by Abhisit Vejjajiva,” said Arisman Pongruengrong, a Red Shirt leader. “It is clear that there were no clashes at Saladeng, but Seh Daeng was shot by a government sniper. This is clearly a use of war weapons on the people.”
In the ensuing clashes, a protester was shot and killed by troops. His death raised to 30 the number of people who have died in Thailand’s latest round of political violence.
The trouble started after tens of thousands of Red Shirts streamed into the capital March 12 and occupied the historic downtown area. An army attempt to clear them April 10 led to clashes that killed 25 people and wounded more than 800.
The Red Shirts vacated that area and later moved to Rajprasong, turning the upmarket area in central Bangkok lined with shopping malls, apartments, banks, hotels and embassies into a heavily barricaded stronghold.
Authorities on Thursday night began to cut power, public transportation and some cell phone service in the area, but music and speeches carried on from the Red Shirt stage and were relayed by sympathetic radio stations. In the morning, some protesters were out early to extend their defenses.
About 10,000 protesters were believed by the government to be in the area where the barricades of sharpened bamboo stakes and tires were built under Khattiya’s supervision.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn was evasive when asked if troops shot Khattiya.
“The operation by authorities was according to international standards and law. So far, we have not found any actions by the authorities that went beyond that,” he told the AP.
The government had labeled Khattiya a “terrorist” and a mastermind behind some of the recent violence.
Khattiya bitterly opposed reconciling with the government and had become critical of other Red Shirt leaders, some of whom had wanted to accept a compromise.
The Red Shirts see Abhisit’s government as serving an elite insensitive to the plight of most Thais. The protesters include many supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist leader accused of corruption and abuse of power and ousted in a 2006 military coup.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire who fled overseas to avoid a corruption conviction, has publicly encouraged the protests and is widely believed to be helping bankroll them. He claims to be a victim of political persecution.