Blood on Thai streets as political crisis worsens

Thailand suffered its worst political violence in more than 16 years as police battled protesters who besieged the Parliament in their struggle to change the country’s system of democracy.

At least one person was killed and more than 400 people were injured.

The army moved into the streets of the capital, Bangkok, while most of the protesters eventually left the area around Parliament and regrouped on the grounds of the prime minister’s office, which they have occupied since August 26.

The violence heightened the political uncertainty that has bedevilled Thailand since early 2006, when large protests called for Thaksin Shinawatra, the tycoon-turned-prime minister, to step down for alleged corruption and abuse of power.

A September 2006 coup ousted Thaksin, but a military-appointed interim government proved incompetent and scared away foreign investors.

Thaksin’s political allies were restored to power by a December 2007 election, serving only to deepen the split between his rural majority supporters and urban-based opponents, who have made it difficult for the government to function. The problems stayed at a boil when Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, became prime minister.

Earlier, according to Thai media, he climbed over a fence to get past the crowds and escape from Parliament.

The protesters’ rage over what they see as an effort to reinstall Thaksin by stealth leads some to suspect they are pushing to force another coup to oust the government.

“It is increasingly apparent that the alliance is provoking confrontation so that the military would intervene,” said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a historian and a former rector of Bangkok’s Thammasat University: “They are confusing anarchy and democracy and I don’t think a coup can be ruled out at this point. It seems that they want to drag it to that end, one way or the other.”

But Army Commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda, speaking to reporters last night, said: “The military will not stage a coup. A coup would not do any good to the country. It won’t accomplish anything. It is not hard to stage a coup. But making a country function after staging one is.”

The prime minister rebuffed the protesters’ demands to step down. “I came in to do my job, so I will not quit working,” Somchai told reporters.

The protesters, calling themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy, include royalists, wealthy and middle-class urban residents and union activists, all of whom feel threatened by political and social change.

The alliance claims Thailand’s electoral system is susceptible to vote-buying, and that the rural majority, the Thaksin camp’s power base, is not sophisticated enough to cast ballots responsibly.

It advocates abandoning one-person, one-vote to allow some politicians to be chosen by professions and social groups, but has not explained how such a system would work and be free and fair.

The violence was the worst since 1992, when the army killed dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators seeking the ouster of a military-backed government.

The protesters had surrounded the squat, modern Parliament buildings Monday night with barbed wire and tire barricades.

The first burst of violence came at 6am yesterday when police cleared the street, allowing the prime minister to enter and deliver a policy statement.

Another erupted in the late afternoon with authorities firing countless volleys of tear gas to clear a path for lawmakers to leave.

About a mile away from the fighting, an unidentified person was killed when a Jeep Cherokee exploded. Police said they suspected a bomb, but gave no details.

Witnesses reported hearing gunshots throughout the day, though who was firing them could not be determined. Some police had shotguns, and an AP Television News reporter saw at least three protesters carrying guns. Protesters also used iron rods, slingshots, firecrackers, rocks and bottles to attack the police.

At least five major confrontations with police left 410 people injured, 66 of whom were taken to hospital, medical authorities said. An Associated Press reporter saw two police officers with gunshot wounds.

A 20-year-old woman caught up in one clash died en route to the hospital, said Surasak Lila-udomniti, a hospital official, adding that the exact cause of death was uncertain but she had been badly injured.

Several people lost legs. Demonstrators charged police had used grenades; authorities denied it.

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