Protesters step up violence in Thailand

The scene from the streets of Bangkok on Monday showed widespread protests against the government.
Thai army soldiers fired a volley of gunshots on Monday on the streets of Bangkok as they advanced toward anti-government protesters demanding Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva step down. It was not immediately known whether the troops fired rubber bullets or live gunshots.

Demonstrators commandeered at least two buses, rigged the steering wheels and sent them toward police officers — who fired at the vehicles in response. Other buses were seen burning. Earlier in the day, protesters hurled gasoline bombs, blocked intersections and set fires in many parts of Thailand’s capital. Scores of riot police descended on the streets, and at least 70 people were wounded in clashes. “The first objective is to clear up the traffic blocks around the city,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a Thai government spokesman. “The second is to return the government offices and compound back to the officers. Lastly, reduce the threat to the prime minister and his Cabinet ministers.” The Thai New Year, or Songkran, began Monday and is traditionally a multi-day celebration in the country. People roam the streets, drenching one another and passersby with water guns or containers of water. This year, however, thousands of “red shirt” protesters — named after their clothing — have rallied for days, saying Abhisit’s 4-month-old government is not democratically elected and that he should call new elections. The demonstrators have given the prime minister repeated deadlines to resign, but those have come and gone. “He insists under the circumstances, where there is a lot of deep division in the society … resigning won’t solve any standing conflict,” Panitan said.

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On Sunday, Abhisit declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas after the protesters forced the postponement of a summit of Asian leaders in the southern coastal city of Pattaya, embarrassing the government. Protesters took over two gas tanker trucks Monday, slashed the tires of a police van and surrounded the prime minister’s office, which seemed devoid of a security presence. The government, which until now had appeared unable to order the army or police to use force in tamping down the protests, set up a “center” Monday with the heads of the police, army, air force and navy to coordinate a response, Panitan said. “We’re trying as best as we can to go on with our daily lives, and we are hoping that our prime minister is able to resolve everything peacefully soon,” resident Supatra Jenstitwong said. The protesters are loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup. The government has blamed him for fomenting the latest clashes. Thaksin, who fled Bangkok last year while facing trial on corruption charges, said he would return home to lead the people in a march on the capital if necessary. “Now that they have tanks on the street and the soldiers are coming out, so it is time for the people to come out for a revolution,” Thaksin told supporters, speaking by video link from an unknown location. Immediately after Abhisit’s state-of-emergency declaration, dozens of protesters stormed the country’s interior ministry and pelted Abhisit’s car with rocks, chairs, flags and sticks as he escaped. Protesters climbed atop two military armored cars after lying down on the road and blocking their path. A police officer was led away by demonstrators and beaten, said Sathit Wongnongtoey, an official in the prime minister’s office. “I think it is the beginning of the process we have never seen in Thailand. It’s unprecedented,” opposition member Jakrapob Penkair said on Monday. “I wouldn’t say it is a revolution. At least it’s a starting point of the people’s uprising against the old power.” The emergency measure allows officials to arrest and detain protesters without a court order, and to restrict gatherings, authorities said. Bruce Bugajski and his brother flew in for a four-day trip to Thailand on Sunday night and were driven to their hotel by a cabdriver with a red ribbon on his dashboard, signifying his support for the protesters. The normally congested highways leading into the city were deserted. “He had a picture of the old prime minister,” Bugajski said. “He said that’s who he wants to get back to power down here.”

Monday morning, the scene outside their hotel was calm and normal — a contrast to the images of clashes blaring from their television screen. “Kids were outside squirting tourists with their squirt guns, and some of the tourists were getting into it,” Bugajski said. “It’s quite a different picture.”