Thai tensions rise after gun attack on protesters

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014


BANGKOK — Gunshots rang out in the heart of Thailand's capital overnight in an apparent attack on anti-government protesters early Wednesday that wounded at least two people and ratcheted up tensions in Thailand's deepening political crisis.

The city's emergency services office said one man was hit in the ankle and a woman was hit in the arm in the shooting, which occurred 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 Wednesday, 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 fueled fears the nation's deadlock could spiral out of control.

Sompong Pongsattha, a 56-year-old resident who witnessed the shooting in the Pathumwan district, said about 30 gunshots were fired from an unknown location toward 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 had to be carried to another intersection to be taken to a hospital.

In another incident overnight, a small explosive device was hurled into a residential compound owned by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, shattering windows and slightly damaging a roof, according to Police Col. Chumpol Phumphuang and Abhisit's opposition Democrat Party. No injuries were reported, and Abhisit — who resigned from Parliament last month to join protesters — was not home at the time.

The Southeast Asian nation's latest bout of unrest began late last year and Yingluck has tried to ease it by dissolving Parliament and calling for elections on Feb. 2. There are growing doubts that the vote will take place, however, and both protesters and the main opposition Democrat Party are calling for a boycott. 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.

On Tuesday, however, Yingluck insisted she wouldn't 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," Yingluck told reporters. "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."

Yingluck proposed to meet Wednesday with various groups — including her opponents — 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.

Yingluck said all sides need 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 Prime Minister 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 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 Jan. 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."

Yingluck's opponents know she would win another election, and have called for an unelected "people's council" to amend laws to fight corruption in politics and institute other reforms, while an appointed prime minister would help administer the country for up to two years.

Suthep, who has taken to the protest stage with fiery rhetoric nearly every day for weeks, called on supporters to shut down all government offices and cut water and electricity to the private residences of Yingluck and her Cabinet "in the next two or three days."

"If they are still being obstinate, then we will capture them one by one because the people are not interested in fighting for years," he said.

Suthep, who is wanted by police on charges of insurrection, issued a similar call in late November, urging supporters to seize "every ministry." But the protesters were too few in number and only managed to briefly occupy several government offices and the Finance Ministry. (AP)

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