BANGKOK – Thousands of Thai troops, firing automatic weapons and tear gas, forced anti-government protesters rampaging across Bangkok to retreat Monday to their main encampment ringing the seat of government. The demonstrators said they were prepared for a “final stand.” In a major escalation of Thailand’s ongoing turmoil, protesters and combat troops locked in a series of tense confrontations and cat-and-mouse chases for 12 hours. At least 79 people were reported injured. The army spokesman said troops fired blank bullets into the crowds and live shots overhead.
As evening fell, some of the 6,000 troops deployed in Bangkok began moving toward Government House, where the “red-shirt” protesters have been holding out since March 26. An estimated 5,000 of the demonstrators were gathered in the Government House area.
“This will be our final stand. I beg that you return here and face them together,” protest leader Jatuporn Phromphan shouted from a platform near the seat of government.
“We will use peaceful means and stay right here to end their violence.” Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said troops were narrowing the area of unrest.
“It’s going to take time, and we are trying to cause as little loss as possible.”
Hundreds of soldiers and police assembled at the Royal Plaza, about a mile (less than 2 kilometers) from the Government House confronting about 100 female protesters who knelt down and screamed “Please stop, brothers.” Some hugged the soldiers.
“I don’t mind dying right here if it means we become a real democracy. You can kill me right here. I am not here to cause trouble. I just want my rights,” said Tanyawalai Wongsuriyaneth, 46, a female protester returning to join the rally at Government House.
The demonstrators are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, saying his four-month-old government came to power illegally.
Many dead, says Thaksin
Exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the figurehead of the protests, told CNN that people had died. “Many people are dying ... They even take the bodies on the military trucks and take them away,” he said.
Protesters torched several buses on the roads leading towards the Government House area. One side of a government building was on fire, and a Thai television channel said it was caused by a firebomb. Black smoke billowed into the dusk sky.
The clashes came two days after protesters forced the cancellation of a high-profile Asian summit in Thailand, a big embarrassment for Abhisit, whom they have been trying to oust. He took office only in December.
“I believe the darkest days in Thailand’s history are yet to come as we see no swift solution to ongoing divisiveness,” said Prinn Panitchpakdi, a CLSA Asia-Pacific analyst.
Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, which already have a negative outlook on Thailand’s sovereign ratings, said on Monday the renewed political unrest increased the risk of a downgrade.
The flare-up came at the start of the Thai New Year holiday, and even as soldiers and protesters battled in the streets, in other parts of town squealing children and shrieking adults blasted each other with waterguns to celebrate the three-day Thai new year.
Abhisit seems intent on sweeping the protesters out of city before the new year festivities end, preferably with a minimum of casualties, to burnish his credibility after the summit fiasco. He appeared on television late Sunday, flanked by military commanders, to say a coup was not going to happen. Thailand has seen 18 coups since 1932, and the military often has the final say in Thai politics. – Agencies
• TRAVEL ADVISORIES
France, Britain, Australia, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines were among countries that issued travel advisories Monday, urging citizens to avoid trips to Thailand and for those already in Bangkok to stay in their hotels and away from protests.