BANGKOK—An antigovernment protester was shot dead and three others wounded after an unidentified gunman opened fire on a demonstration site in central Bangkok early Saturday as tension continues to build ahead of national elections slated for just more than a month from now.
The predawn attack came after nearly two months of increasingly violent protests against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the perceived influence of her brother, self-made billionaire and former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup seven years ago. On Friday, army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha refused to rule out another putsch after clashes between security forces and protesters trying to stop the Feb. 2 vote left one policeman and one protester dead. More than 140 people were injured.
The door to another coup “is neither open nor closed… it will be determined by the situation,” Gen. Prayuth said at a news conference.
A spokesman for the Bangkok city government’s emergency medical unit said the man shot Saturday was in his 30s and had suffered gunshot wounds to his abdomen after a drive-by shooting at one of the main protest sites in the city.
Ms. Yingluck, 46 years old, dissolved parliament on Dec. 9 in an effort to calm the situation. But the main opposition party boycotted the vote and joined the largely middle-class demonstrators in demanding the appointment of an unelected council to govern this country of 67 million people. The protesters want to end the influence of the Shinawatra clan, which they say has pursued expensive populist policies to secure a large majority in the country’s parliament to serve the family’s own interests.
The government, though, says the policies, including a multibillion-dollar rice subsidy, are designed to raise incomes in poorer rural areas, and Ms. Yingluck and her brother, Mr. Thaksin, are wildly popular in vote-rich areas of the north and northeast of the country. Opinion polls suggest their Pheu Thai Party was likely to win the Feb. 2 vote even before the opposition Democrat Party pulled out to join the antielection campaign.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, has urged the military to take sides in the worsening crisis. Some political analysts say he and his supporters aim to make the country ungovernable and provoke the army to step in. “This game won’t come to an end any time soon until a crisis is created and maintained,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. “I’m afraid we might see more sacrifices in terms of human lives before things will get better.”
Thailand’s army plays an influential role in the country. Since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, it has launched 11 successful coups and several unsuccessful ones. After the 2006 coup, Mr. Thaksin was convicted of corruption—a charge he dismisses as politically motivated—and fled overseas to avoid prison.
Until Friday the army’s top brass had repeatedly ruled out a coup. It has publicly tried to maintain neutrality between the protesters and a large pro-government grass roots movement known as the Red Shirts. At times the army has acted as an intermediary between the two sides. Gen. Prayuth on Friday said the army had shown a “red traffic light to both sides, so things will calm down” and said the military would continue to encourage the rival factions to find a negotiated settlement to the crisis.
But the military’s patience appears to be wearing thin as the violence grows and the toll on Thailand’s economy mounts. On Friday, its baht currency hit a fresh three-year low against the dollar. “Whether [a coup] is going to happen, time will tell,” Gen. Prayuth said Friday. – By James Hookway
Wilawan Watcharasakwet contributed to this article
Write to James Hookway at email@example.com