Tension rises in Thailand after protesters shot

Tension rises in Thailand after protesters shot
Protesters in Bangkok. Picture: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

Gunshots have rung out in the heart of Thailand’s capital in an apparent attack on anti-government protesters that wounded at least two people and increased tensions amid the deepening political crisis.

The city’s emergency services office said one man was hit in the ankle and a woman in the arm in the shooting, on a street leading to one of Bangkok’s glitziest shopping districts that has been occupied by camping demonstrators trying to bring down prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government since Monday.

Most of the city has been unaffected by the protests and Bangkok was calm today, but the attack was the latest in a string of violent incidents this month that have kept the vast metropolis of 12 million people on edge and fuelled fears the nation’s deadlock could spiral out of control.

Sompong Pongsattha, 56, who witnessed the shooting in the Pathumwan district, said about 30 shots were fired from an unknown location towards a protest barricade over the course of about two hours. He said only a few demonstrators were there at the time, and the wounded woman was carried to another junction to be taken to hospital.

In another overnight incident, an explosive device was hurled into a residential compound owned by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, shattering windows and damaging a roof. No injuries were reported.

Thailand’s latest bout of unrest began late last year and Ms Yingluck has tried to ease it by dissolving parliament and calling for elections on February 2. But there are growing doubts that the vote will take place, and both protesters and the main opposition Democrat Party are calling for a boycott.

Ms Yingluck’s opponents are demanding she step aside so an interim, non-elected government can take over and implement reforms before any new poll is held.

Ms Yingluck insisted yesterday that she would not quit while the protesters reiterated vows not to negotiate, leaving the country’s political crisis firmly deadlocked.

“I’ve stressed many times I have a duty to act according to my responsibility after the dissolution of parliament,” she said. “I’d like to say right now I am not holding on (to my position) but I have to keep political stability. I’m doing my duty to preserve democracy.”

Ms Yingluck proposed to meet various groups – including her opponents – today to discuss a proposal from the Election Commission to postpone the February vote. But protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, the Democrats and even the Election Commission has refused to take part.

The prime minister said all sides needed to discuss reform because “the country is in pain and the people are suffering”.

Protesters accuse her government of corruption and misrule and for being the puppet of her older brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. He was toppled by the army in a peaceful coup in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction.

The poor majority in Thailand’s countryside, however, broadly support Mr Thaksin and his family because of the populist policies he implemented, including virtually free health care.

Ever since Thaksin’s overthrow, the two sides have been dueling for power, sometimes violently. At least eight people have been killed and injured more than 450 since the latest unrest began late last year. Since January 6, there have also been several shootings against protesters that have wounded at least 10 people.

The International Crisis Group think-tank said this week that the protests risked sparking violence that could be “designed to instigate a coup”.

The country’s army chief has pointedly refused to rule out a military takeover - always a possibility in a country that has suffered 11 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

“There is no clear way out,” Crisis Group said. “But there are ways to render a bad situation potentially catastrophic ... Thailand needs leadership to generate the truly inclusive national dialogue required to set it on a stable path.”

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