x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Bangkok turns into battle zone

The Thai capital turns into battlefield as clashes between security forces and demonstrators leave at least 10 people dead and more than 100 injured.

Anti-government Red Shirt protesters carry a man, who was shot during clashes with army soldiers, to safety past a destroyed vehicle near Bangkok's Lumpini Park yesterday.
Anti-government Red Shirt protesters carry a man, who was shot during clashes with army soldiers, to safety past a destroyed vehicle near Bangkok's Lumpini Park yesterday.

BANGKOK // The Thai capital turned into battlefield yesterday as clashes, which started on Thursday night, between security forces and demonstrators left at least 10 people dead and more than 100 injured. Thai troops battled with anti-government protesters in the heart of the city all day yesterday, increasing fears that the situation is getting out of control. Nine men and one woman, all civilians, were killed in the violence, according to an official Erawan emergency centre.

Red Shirt leaders have warned the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, that the country is on the brink of civil war if he does not accept their demands. Those include an immediate ceasefire, a retreat of the soldiers and a lift of the state of emergency, which was introduced a month ago and gave the army increased powers to suppress the protests. Troops fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds at the protesters, who hurled stones and launched home-made rockets and firecrackers. In some places police lorries were set on fire, as protesters reacted to the army's attempts to tighten the security cordon around the Red Shirt rally site.

Three journalists covering the clashes were among the wounded, including a Canadian television cameraman, Nelson Rand, who was said to be "gravely wounded", according to Agence France-Presse. Canada closed its embassy yesterday, joining the US and Britain which closed their embassies on Thursday. The UAE Foreign Ministry put out a travel alert yesterday advising all citizens to avoid travel to Thailand until security improves, according to the state news agency, WAM.

Even the rally centre in the city's commercial heartland, where the leaders typically address the several thousand Red Shirt supporters camped there, and which had been seen as relatively safe from the soldiers, came under fire last night. Tear gas canisters were hurled down from the train line above the area and live bullets sprayed onto the stage where speakers and bands keep the protesters entertained.

One woman, who was not partaking in the rally, was killed. There were several other injuries, including one Red Shirt leader who was hit in the hand and was bleeding. "We must stop the killing," Weng Tojirakarn, a Red Shirt leader, said in an interview. "The prime minister must take responsibility." Two policemen have been killed by soldiers' bullets, according to the Red Shirt spokesman, Sean Booncrapong, and now the police are openly firing on the troops, indicating possible divisions within the security forces. Several witnesses confirmed that the police fired at soldiers guarding their barricade.

"The time for talking is over," another Red Shirt leader, Jaran Ditapichai, said. "Abhisit has no alternative but to accept our peace plan, and as soon as he announces the dissolution of parliament, we will disperse." Last night the Red Shirt's military strategist, Major Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol, was shot in the head and is critically injured. He was shot by a sniper using a high velocity rifle, according to the Red Shirt leaders.

"This was clearly an assassination attempt by government forces, as the bullets that were retrieved are only available to soldiers," Mr Booncrapong said. For nine weeks Red Shirts have controlled crucial parts of the city, demanding that Mr Abhisit immediately dissolve parliament and call fresh elections. Many of the Red Shirts, who form the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, support the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in September 2006. He fled Thailand some 20 months ago while on bail for corruption charges and has made Dubai his temporary base.

His Red Shirt support base is largely made up of rural and urban poor who supported Thaksin's populist policies. Thaksin called on the government yesterday to pull back troops and restart negotiations with the Red Shirts. "The government's actions clearly constitute grave infringement of human rights and criminal offences for which the prime minister, the deputy prime minister and all concerned must be responsible," Thaksin said in a statement released by his legal adviser in Bangkok.

Several weeks ago the protesters moved from a relatively secluded area around the city's political hub - the parliament and government house - to the capital's commercial centre, disrupting business in the city. "We moved here because we knew this would inconvenience the country's economic and social elite," said Red Shirt leader Jataporn Prompan. "We wanted them to hurt and take notice of our demands."

The prime minister is under increasing domestic and foreign pressure to break the deadlock. He recently proposed a road map, which included planned elections in mid-November. The Red Shirt leaders wanted more - including the prosecution of those responsible for the crackdown on demonstrators on April 10 that left 26 people dead and more than a thousand injured. "As long as the government allows the judicial system to sort this out, we would be satisfied, Mr Jaran said.

The Red Shirts say the government has begun a war of attrition against them. Electricity and water supplies have been cut off for more than 24 hours, though they have been able to truck in water and they have their own generators. Mobile phone services at the centre of the rally were cut at 6pm on Thursday, when the government's latest ultimatum to return to their homes ran out. Residents in the area were told this week to stock up on food and water. The United Nations told its staff who live there to stay home and horde supplies for a week at least.

Many local residents and Red Shirt supporters wishing to join the rally are being turned away and numbers have dwindled. "My heart is willing, but my flesh is weak," said Niratchai Sunthonsak, a Red Shirt sympathiser. "I'm too scared." foreign.desk@thenational.ae