At Least 1 Killed as Unrest Spreads in Thailand

Anti-government protesters calling for the return of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra clashed with Thai security forces in Bangkok, prompting the government to launch a violent crackdown.
By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

BANGKOK, April 13 -- Civil unrest spread across Thailand on Monday, with clashes between anti-government demonstrators and security forces in at least three locations in Bangkok and major highways blocked in many provinces outside the city. By evening, soldiers had surrounded the last and largest of the rally sites in the capital.

[By Tuesday, the situation appeared calmer. Protest leaders said they were calling off the demonstrations after combat troops ringed their last stronghold, the Associated Press reported.]

Before dawn on Monday, 12 hours after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announced a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas, security forces had moved in to break up a group of protesters who had taken over a major intersection in central Bangkok, blocking it with piles of burning tires.

Dozens were injured in the ensuing melee. When authorities took control of the intersection, the protesters moved into surrounding streets. There they threw gasoline bombs and taunted the soldiers for much of the day.

They also rigged a driverless bus to run into the lines of soldiers, but it caused no casualties. The soldiers responded by firing at the protesters; authorities say they were firing blanks, but protesters have insisted that they were live rounds.

There were other clashes outside the Foreign Ministry, where protesters torched a bus.

The government said a local resident was fatally shot by one of the protesters, the first confirmed fatality during this latest period of unrest. Officials from the government and emergency services said 93 people had been injured in the day's clashes, including 23 troops.

By Monday night, military forces had surrounded the final and largest concentration of protesters, who were encamped around the prime minister's offices in central Bangkok and wearing their trademark red shirts. Abhisit said that he thought there were about 4,000 protesters and that soldiers were allowing demonstrators to leave but were not permitting them to come back.

"We are so afraid. We think they are going to come in and clear us out with bullets," said Somchit Likhittaworn, a university lecturer who was in the middle of the demonstration. She said she and her group of friends were scared to leave because they had heard that gangs of government supporters were roving outside the perimeter.

Abhisit said the troops were using as little force as possible.

"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," he said in a nationally televised speech.

The protesters are demanding Abhisit's resignation. They say his route to power, through a controversial parliamentary vote in December, was undemocratic. They accuse Thailand's army and other unelected officials of brokering the vote to block supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who have won the last three general elections, from forming another government.

Unrest had been brewing for weeks but gained critical momentum Saturday, when hundreds of demonstrators invaded the site in Pattaya where Abhisit was hosting Asian and Pacific leaders, causing the summit to be canceled.

The focus of the protests has returned to Bangkok, but the disruption has spread to other parts of the country, with highways blocked in many provinces in the northeast, Thaksin's heartland.

The protesters, emboldened by their success in Pattaya and their ability to hold out against the military in Bangkok, have issued a series of demands that will be hard for the government to fulfill.

"First the crackdown must be stopped completely; second, the resignation of Abhisit Vejjajiva must be in order; and thirdly, the negotiations," said Jakrapob Penkair, one of the most prominent opposition leaders.

Jakrapob acknowledged that there were violent elements in the ranks of the protesters.

"The red-shirt movement is not a military movement. There are several groups who came to join us because of the emotional, ideological similarities. Their methods might not be desirable or satisfactory, but I maintain we cannot control the people from doing what they feel they have to do," he said.

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