A day of violence on the streets of the Thai capital left at least ten dead and 125 wounded after renewed fighting erupted in the city's commercial heart yesterday. Soldiers fired bullets and teargas into the fortified encampment held for weeks by anti-government protesters, and street battles erupted in the city centre.
What began in early March as a defiant and proud rally intended to oust the Thai Government peacefully and fight for social justice had, by last night, largely unravelled as the army strengthened its stranglehold around thousands of diehard protesters.
Hemmed into their fortified encampment by troops, the remaining protesters digested the grim information that several of their leaders had quit. As long as the security forces remain loyal to the Government their options appear increasingly limited in the face of the army's firepower.
From dawn yesterday the protest site centred on Ratchaprasong intersection in central Bangkok was surrounded by armed troops and police officers in armoured vehicles. They fired live rounds and rubber bullets as well as teargas at members of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. The group has spent weeks in the centre of one of Asia's most cosmopolitan cities demanding the dissolution of the Thai parliament, followed by elections.
Known widely as the Red Shirts, the demonstrators responded with petrol bombs and fired home-made rockets into the streets surrounding the upmarket district that they have occupied for nearly six weeks. Several thousand Red Shirts were still behind the high barricades of the site perimeter last night, protected by guards carrying thick bamboo staves.
From the stage in the centre of the demonstration some Red Shirt leaders were still shouting their defiance at the unseen presence of the encircling troops. Sean Boonpracong, a Red Shirt spokesman, confirmed the movement's leadership had fissured. "Four leaders have decided to leave," he told The Times. "Veera Musikhapong has resigned from the chairmanship. But there were still 16 leaders meeting here this afternoon."
Even so, it was becoming apparent that the Red Shirts were losing control. Black smoke billowed from the bamboo and car tyre barricades at the southern end of the site. A bus had been set on fire near Sala Daeng station.
Earlier, sporadic explosions and gunfire had echoed through the area. Red Shirts near Lumpini Park faced shots from troops wedging their weapons through the distant park railings. The protesters hid behind flimsy tents and offered the journalists with them face masks as protection against the expected teargas.
Two hospital gurneys were rattled around the back of the stage, one bearing an apparently wounded protester, the other a dead one. Kannanat Pijitkadipol had seen the pair taken to first one hospital, then raced through the protest site on their way to Bangkok's Police Hospital. Weeping, she said that she thought that at least one of them was dead. "I saw them at the hospital," she said. "It's very bad."
Three journalists were hit by bullets; two Thai photographers and Nelson Rand, a Canadian working for France24 television, who was seriously wounded by gunshots to the abdomen.
Across Bangkok military and police roadblocks screened traffic and various embassies were closed - including the British compound, which is near to the protest site. The attempted assassination on Thursday of Khattiya Sawasdipol, the renegade general and Red Shirt security leader, who was shot in the head while being interviewed by journalists inside the encampment, appeared to be the catalyst for the Government to take a harder line. Better known as Seh Daeng (Commander Red), General Khattiya had been a divisive figure in the movement and one implacably opposed to reconciliation. A doctor yesterday told Thai media that the general's chances of survival were low.
Despite the Red Shirts' fear that an all-out military assault was imminent, pushing them to ask for a ceasefire, an army spokesman insisted that no comprehensive military attacks had been planned to retake the site. "We will allow protesters to leave the area today," Sansern Kaewkamnerd told reporters, adding that authorities were trying to seal off the encampment, cut off the Red Shirts' supplies and limit the crowd size. The military cordon around the camp is the result of weeks of brinkmanship, violence and failed negotiation.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, the Government's official spokesman, appeared on national television to insist that the military's actions in opening fire had been justified because of the protesters' "clear intention" to attack. "The soldiers, the police and the civilian officers had no choice but to respond to these attacks by adopting the rules of engagement," he said, adding that according to the rules, live ammunition could be used only for self-defence, to protect other officers or the public, or to fire into the air. He warned of potential instability in Bangkok but added that it would be dealt with by the security forces. "We hope that in the next few days Thailand will return to normalcy," he said.
The Government has tried in vain to persuade the protesters, mostly supporters of the deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to return to their homes, predominantly in the poor north and northeast. Mr Thaksin was told by the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro, where he is living, that he was not permitted to use the nation as a base for sending political messages to Thailand.
The protesters have proved remarkably resilient and the thousands-strong protest has maintained momentum with non-stop amplified speeches, free food and shelter, and the promise of a better Thailand.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Prime Minister, recently offered to hold an election this year, 12 months before it is due, but the protesters insisted that they would not disperse until the Deputy Prime Minister was arrested and charged for ordering a previous military crackdown in April that left 25 people dead. Mr Abhisit has withdrawn the offer of an election but he has said that he will still work towards reconciliation.