In a major escalation of anti- government protests, at least 70 people were injured on Monday when Thai troops, vowing to use “all possible means” to bring the situation under control fought pitched battles and opened fire on demonstrators in Bangkok, pushing the Southeast Asian country further into political crisis.
Despite a state of emergency declared in the Thai capital, demonstrators, demanding Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s unconditional resignation, commandeered at least two buses, rigged the steering wheels and sent them toward police officers -- who fired at the vehicles in response.
Trucks carrying hundreds of Thai troops moved into an area near the prime minister’s office in Bangkok, the main site where thousands of “red shirt” protesters -- named after their clothing -- have rallied for days, saying Abhisit’s 4- month-old government is not democratically elected and that he should call new elections.
Earlier in the day, protesters hurled gasoline bombs, blocked intersections and set fires in many parts of Bangkok. Scores of armed riot police descended on the streets to clear blocked roads.
The demonstrators, loyal to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit quit just four months after coming to power.
Thaksin, in a phone call to his supporters on Sunday, told the red shirts at Government House he could return from exile to lead a people’s uprising if there was a coup.
Authorities said so far at least 70 people were injured, four from gunshots, including two soldiers.
The clashes came two days after protesters forced cancellation of a high-profile Asian summit, a big embarrassment for Vejjajiva, whom they have been trying to oust. Abhisit took office only in December.
Thailand’s military said it will use “all possible means” to restore order as anti-government protests raged in Bangkok.
“The emergency operations command centre will use all possible means to restore order swiftly and reopen traffic so that people can resume their normal lives,” Supreme Commander Songkitti Jaggabatara said in a television address.
“We will not use force to crack down on our people because we are fully aware that they are all Thais,” he said. “But we reserve the right to use weapons in self-defence.”
“I hope the situation will be resolved soon in an orderly manner,” he added.
Permanent Secretary for Pubic Health Ministry Prat Boonyawongvirot said 66 people were injured in the clash at Din Daeng, but that no one died from the incident. He added that 11 remained at the hospital mainly with injuries from teargas and canister fragments.
Despite the crackdown a large number of UDD protesters have besieged the Government House, demanding his unconditional resignation, dissolution of the House of Representatives and a general election be held, Thai News Agency (TNA) reported.
Most Bangkok streets were virtually deserted early today as many residents had left for upcountry to celebrate the three-day Songkran festival, Thailand’s traditional New Year, beginning Monday. Many opted to stay home due to safety concerns, the report said.
According to reports, fire broke out in the building of the education ministry after suspected anti-government protesters attacked it with petrol bombs. Red shirted protesters set fire to tyres, burned public buses and set fires in the streets.
The soldiers fired into the air and lobbed tear gas to rid the streets of the protesters but the anti-government demonstrators did not relent.
A mob of the red-shirted protesters smashed cars carrying Prime Minister Vejjajiva and his aides on Sunday. The secretary-general of Abhisit’s office, Niphon Promphan, was dragged from the car and beaten, suffering head injuries and broken ribs, reports said.
“All the work I am doing is not to create fear or put pressure or to harm any group of people. It’s a step by step process to restore order and stop violence,” Abhisit said on national TV on Sunday.
“In the next few hours, several security measures will be established ... to secure major ports, international airports and infrastructure,” Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.