BANGKOK – Several thousand troops have been deployed in Bangkok to support riot police in protecting key government ministries in the Thai capital from anti-government protests that have turned violent.
Mobs also besieged at least three television stations demanding they broadcast the protesters’ views and not the government’s. One of those TV stations is government run, the other is owned by the military and the third is independent.
More than 1,000 protesters were seen trying to rip down concrete barriers outside the Government House but were pushed back by police who fired tear gas and water cannons.
“We’re all brothers and sisters,” police shouted through a loudspeaker before firing tear gas. “Please don’t try to come in!”
Protesters tried to get through a barbed wire fence, sandbags and concrete barriers to occupy the prime minister’s official residence — and police fought back on Sunday, firing tear gas and rubber bullets in running battles against rock-throwing mobs.
Riot police moved into action after protesters tried to rip down the concrete barriers. A few kilometres away, mobs tried to enter the Bangkok police headquarters, but again were thwarted by tear gas.
Any further deterioration of security is likely to scare away tourists who come to Thailand by the millions and contribute a huge chunk to the economy. It is also likely to undermine Thailand’s democracy, which had built up in fits and starts amid a history of coups.
Still, violence by the opposition may help the government undermine its foes who claim to be carrying out a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience. Until now, the protests were peaceful, attended by up to 100,000 people in the Thai capital. They are mostly middle-class Bangkok residents who have been part of the anti-Thaksin movement for several years, and people brought in from the Democrat Party strongholds in the southern provinces.
During the past week, the protesters had seized the finance ministry, turned off power at police headquarters, camped at a sprawling government office complex and briefly broken into the army headquarters compound to urge the military to support them.
Shots fired into University
The violence has stirred fears of further instability like what plagued the country during related political conflicts in 2006, 2008 and 2010. In 2008, anti-Thaksin demonstrators occupied Bangkok’s two airports for a week after taking over the prime minister’s office for three months.
Tensions began to rise Saturday night after pro- and anti-government groups clashed in a northeastern Bangkok neighbourhood and unidentified gunmen shot and killed two people. At least 45 people were injured.
Gunshots were fired in the same area early Sunday, but it was not clear who was responsible or targeted, said police Col. Narongrit Promsawat. The violence occurred near a stadium holding a large pro-government rally.
At least some of Sunday’s gunshots appeared to have been fired into the nearby Ramkhamhaeng University, according to its rector, Wutthisak Larpcharoensap.
Authorities have exercised extreme restraint over the past week as the protesters besieged and occupied parts of various government ministries and offices.
Police called for calm in a televised statement, saying they were helping to escort both sides out of the area safely. Organizers of the pro-government “Red Shirt” rally at the stadium called off the event for safety reasons and sent people home Sunday, after many spent the night camped inside.
On Saturday, government opponents had gathered outside the stadium and jeered Red Shirt government supporters. Two men wearing red shirts were grabbed, one from the back of a motorbike, and beaten. Two buses were attacked, their windows smashed as passengers cowered inside. One protester used an iron rod with a Thai flag wrapped around it to smash the driver’s side window of one bus.
The protests started after an ill-advised bid by Yingluck’s ruling Pheu Thai party to push an amnesty law through Parliament that would have allowed Thaksin’s return from exile. The bill failed to pass after the upper house of parliament voted against it.
Because Yingluck’s party has overwhelming electoral support from the country’s rural majority, which benefited from Thaksin’s populist programs, the protesters want to change the country’s political system to a less democratic one where the educated and well-connected would have a greater say than directly elected lawmakers.