x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Thailand’s PM flees protesters as crisis deepens

Security forces fight off protesters throwing rocks and petrol bombs during the sharpest escalation yet of the country's latest crisis.

A Thai anti-government protester throws a tear gas canister back to police during a street battle to occupy Government House in Bangkok. Rungroi Yongrit / EPA
A Thai anti-government protester throws a tear gas canister back to police during a street battle to occupy Government House in Bangkok. Rungroi Yongrit / EPA

BANGKOK // Thailand’s prime minister was forced to flee a police complex yesterday as security forces fought off protesters throwing rocks and petrol bombs during the sharpest escalation yet of the country’s latest crisis.

The protests, aimed at toppling Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration, have renewed fears of prolonged instability in one of Southeast Asia’s biggest economies.

Yesterday marked the first time police have used force since demonstrations began a week ago – a risky strategy that many fear could trigger more bloodshed.

At least four people have been killed and 103 injured in skirmishes.

The deaths occurred at a Bangkok stadium where shooting was heard yesterday for the second day and the body of one protester shot in the chest lay face-up on the ground.

The unrest forced several of the capital’s biggest and glitziest shopping malls to close in the heart of the city and snarled traffic. Mobs also besieged several television stations, demanding they broadcast the protesters’ views and not the government’s.

With skirmishes around Ms Yingluck’s office at Government House continuing as darkness fell, the government advised Bangkok residents to stay indoors overnight for their safety.

Ms Yingluck spent the morning in meetings at a Bangkok police complex but evacuated to an undisclosed location and cancelled an interview with reporters after more than a hundred protesters attempted to break into the compound, according to her secretary, Wim Rungwattanajinda.

Several demonstrators said, however, were unaware Ms Yingluck was inside. Those who made it a few steps into the vast complex stayed only a few minutes, and Mr Wim said they did not get anywhere near the heavily protected building where Yingluck was located.

“We want Yingluck to get out of power! She must go!” said Sothorn Kerdkaew, an agriculture student standing outside the police complex.

Political instability has plagued Thailand since the military ousted Ms Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, in a 2006 coup. Two years later, anti-Thaksin demonstrators occupied Bangkok’s two airports for a week after taking over the prime minister’s office for three months, and in 2010 pro-Thaksin protesters occupied downtown Bangkok for weeks in a standoff that ended with parts of the city in flames and more than 90 dead.

Any further deterioration is likely to scare away investors as well as tourists who come to Thailand by the millions and contribute 10 per cent to the US$602 billion (Dh2.21 trillion) economy.

It is also likely to undermine Thailand’s democracy, which had built up in fits and starts interrupted by coups.

The latest unrest began last month after an ill-advised bid by Ms Yingluck’s ruling Pheu Thai party to push an amnesty law through parliament that would have allowed the return of her self-exiled brother, who was overthrown after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin lives in Dubai to avoid a two-year jail term for a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated.

The bill failed to pass the upper house of parliament, emboldening protesters, who drew 100,000 people to a mass rally in Bangkok one week ago. Then, over the past week, they seized the finance ministry, camped at a sprawling government office complex, cut power to the national police headquarters and briefly broken into the army headquarters compound to urge the military to support them.

The demonstrators, who accuse Ms Yingluck of being her brother’s puppet, are a minority who mainly support the opposition Democrat Party. They want to replace her popularly elected government with an unelected “people’s council”, but they have been vague about what that means.

Some of yesterday’s most dramatic scenes played out in front of Government House, where more than 1,000 protesters wearing bandannas and plastic bags over their heads hurled stones, bottles and sticks at police, who fought back with rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas over barricades that separated them. Protesters clipped away at coils of barbed wire that surrounded the compound, pushed over barriers and at one point tried to drag one way with a green rope tied to a truck.

A few kilometres away, police drove back another crowd of protesters at the city’s police headquarters.

“We’re all brothers and sisters,” police shouted through a loudspeaker before firing tear gas. “Please don’t try to come in!”

* Associated Press