An anti-government protester crawls with his pistol during a gunfight between supporters and opponents of Thailand's government near Laksi district office in Bangkok. REUTERS/ Nir Elias
Dozens of gunshots and at least two explosions have raised
tension amid anti-government protests in Thailand's capital,
a day ahead of a general election seen as incapable of
restoring stability in the deeply polarised country.
Six people were wounded in front of a suburban shopping mall
in the north of Bangkok. Gunmen among the crowds were seen
hiding their weapons before backing away from the shooting.
Sporadic gunfire continued as the sun began to set, with
masked men openly firing handguns. Security forces fired
warning shots in the air with M-16s to allow at least a dozen
protesters taking cover under an elevated highway to escape.
"Authorities were able to control today's clashes quickly and
the situation has improved now," National Security Council
chief Paradorn Pattantabutr told Reuters.
It was not immediately clear whether those wounded were the
government's supporters or its opponents, some of whom want
to block ballotting in an election almost certain to return
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to power.
The violence came amid generally peaceful protests around
Bangkok and revived chilling memories of political unrest in
2010, when supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra,
Yingluck's brother, paralysed Bangkok to remove a government
led by the Democrat Party.
More than 90 people were killed and more than 2,000 wounded
when current protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, at the time a
deputy prime minister, sent in troops.
Saturday's attack took place in Bangkok's Laksi district,
close to the Don Muang airport, a stronghold of Yingluck's
Puea Thai Party. Her supporters had gathered to demand
Sunday's ballot not be obstructed.
Ten people have died and at least 577 have been wounded in
politically related violence since late November.
The protesters took to the streets in November for the latest
round of an eight-year conflict broadly between Bangkok's
middle class, southern Thais and the royalist establishment
against the mostly rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin,
who was ousted in a 2006 coup.
Suthep has called for a peaceful blockade of roads, but at
the same time has vowed not to stop people voting.
"The people will not close the polling booths, but will
demonstrate on the roads. They will demonstrate calmly,
peacefully, without violence ... We won't do anything that
will hinder people from going to vote," Suthep said on Friday
Election Commission secretary-general Puchong Nutrawong said
the commission has instructed staff to halt voting if there
is rioting or other violence.
"We don't want this election to be bloody. We can get every
single agency involved to make this election happen, but if
there's blood, what's the point?" Puchong told Reuters.
" ... If there is continued obstruction, I pray only that
there is no fighting and no coup."
The military has stayed firmly on the sidelines so far, in
contrast to the past. It has a history of having staged or
attempted 18 coups in 81 years of on-off democracy.
Yingluck's party is bound to win the election, though without
enough members to achieve a quorum in parliament,
guaranteeing further stalemate, at best, even if the election
passes off peacefully.
The Democrat Party is boycotting Sunday's poll and backs the
Election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn wrote on his
Facebook page about the possibility of the poll being voided
"After the Feb. 2 vote, there will be people filing lawsuits
for the election to be voided immediately, citing various
reasons that they will put forward, such as the general
election must be held on one day or violate the constitution,
which would make it likely that 3.8 billion baht ($115
million) will have been spent for nothing," Somchai wrote.
Puchong said the commission was doing its best to adhere to
the law and any speculation about the vote being annulled was
for the courts to decide.
The protesters, camped out at major intersections in the city
and blocking key arteries, forced polling stations in 49 of
Bangkok's 50 districts to shut last weekend and voting could
only go ahead in three of 15 southern provinces. Some voters
were physically pulled away from the polling booths.
Suthep wants to rid the country of the Shinawatra family's
political influence and accuses Yingluck, who swept to power
in the last election in 2011, of being Thaksin's puppet.
The protesters say Thaksin is a corrupt crony capitalist who
commandeered Thailand's fragile democracy, using taxpayers'
money to buy votes with populist giveaways. Thaksin has
chosen to live abroad since 2008 to avoid a jail term for
He or his allies have won every election since 2001. His
supporters say he was the first Thai political leader to keep
campaign promises to help the poor.
Suthep wants to set up a "people's council" of notable
individuals before another election is held.
The prolonged unrest has hurt tourism and the central bank
says the economy may grow only 3 percent this year, rather
than the 4 percent it had forecast.