Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Blood on Thai streets as Crisis worsens

Grant Peck (AP)

Police attack anti-government protesters trying to flee from tear gas shot by police in front of Parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, 10/7/08 (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit).

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand suffered its worst political violence in more than 16 years as police battled protesters who besieged the Parliament Tuesday in their struggle to change the country's system of democracy. One woman died 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 26th.

The violence heightened the political uncertainty that has bedeviled 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.

The upheaval comes at a tough time: the Thai stock market has sunk nearly 40 percent since May; a Muslim insurgency rages in the south; the rich tourist market has shrunk; and Thailand's great unifying figure, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is 80, raising great concern about how the nation will cope with the eventual succession to the throne.

The protesters' rage over what they see as an effort to reinstall Thaksin by stealth leads some to suspect that they are pushing for a showdown that would re-energize them and possibly 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 Tuesday 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 army has seemed at pains not to alienate the public. It failed to intervene to round up protesters last month even though a state of emergency had been declared, and issued assurances that the troops deployed Tuesday would carry defensive gear but no firearms.

It was the second time troops have been deployed to help keep the peace since the protests began. Soldiers were first sent in — also without firearms — on Sept. 2 after government supporters clashed with the protesters, leaving one dead.

On Tuesday, 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. Earlier, according to Thai media, he had to climb over a fence to get past the crowds and escape from Parliament. 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, including globalization that hits their pockets.

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 lawmakers 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 6 a.m. Tuesday 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 near the headquarters of the Chart Thai Party, a member of Somchai's six-party coalition government. 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. In an assault filmed by Thai television network NBT, a pickup truck plowed into a squad of policemen on a sidewalk. Rioters torched parked cars, trucks and vans.

The violence was confined to a relatively small area near the part of the city housing most government offices.

But at least five major confrontations with police left 410 people injured, 66 of whom were hospitalized, 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.

Earlier Tuesday, even before the violence escalated, the chaos prompted Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh to resign.

Chavalit, the deputy prime minister in charge of security, was seen as a key figure in helping the government to tamp down the crisis. "What happened was partly my responsibility in failing to resolve the conflict," he said in his resignation letter.
Associated Press reporters Ambika Ahuja and Raul Gallego contributed to this story.

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