Two killed as army takes to streets to quell protests in Thailand

Anti-government protests escalate in Thailand as troops open fire on demonstrators

The streets of the Thai capital were filled with clouds of tear gas and the rattle of automatic gunfire yesterday as thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with troops in a sharp escalation of violence. Two people were killed and scores were injured as the chaos spread.

In scenes that resonated around the region and prompted many countries to warn tourists to avoid Thailand, thousands of red-shirted protesters were involved in running battles with troops. After the demonstrators set fire to a bus – one of several they seized – soldiers opened fire with their rifles. An army spokesman said the shots – most of which appeared to be aimed above the protesters' heads – were blanks, but other reports suggested some live ammunition was used. In turn, the demonstrators threw firebombs and rocks at the soldiers.

Last night, as troops moved towards Government House, where supporters of the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have been holed up since 26 March, the country's current Premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva, said the authorities were in control of the situation and urged the demonstrators to go home. He said the government was using the softest possible measures against them and that their safety would be guaranteed. "All the work I am doing is not to create fear or put pressure or to harm any group of people. It's a step-by-step process to restore order and stop violence," he said in a televised address.

But Mr Thaksin accused the authorities of using "brutal repression", and said many people had been killed by troops using live rounds, with the bodies then dragged away to avoid them being seen. "They shot people. Many died. Many people were injured," he told CNN. "I would like to urge every party that comes together to gather peacefully. War never ended with war."

Yesterday's clashes were the latest confrontation between supporters of Mr Thaksin and his opponent since he was ousted as premier in a military coup in 2006. Though governments led by Mr Thaksin's allies were elected once democracy was restored, widespread demonstrations last year saw those administrations forced out. And in December, the Eton-educated Mr Abhisit was elected.

The anti-government protesters, who on Saturday forced the humiliating cancellation of an Asian summit at the Thai resort of Pattaya, have demanded Mr Abhisit stand down immediately and that fresh elections are held. Determined to show the government is in control, the Prime Minister has stood his ground.

But the clashes in Bangkok, in which protesters commandeered public buses to block several key intersections and then sent two of them hurtling toward lines of soldiers, will worry those concerned about Thailand's international image. Last year's turmoil – which at one point closed the country's airports – cost the economy millions of pounds in lost revenue as tourists cancelled trips.

Last night, one Bangkok taxi driver complained that this round of protests would do the same. "Yellows against reds, reds against yellows. What about the rest of us?" he said as he sped through streets that were empty on a night when normally they would be full of people celebrating the beginning of the Thai new year. The festival is usually celebrated with gusto; instead, Bangkok's malls and shops remained shuttered and the local government cancelled its planned events.

In a country which has seen 18 coups in the past six decades, there were worries that the army might again be tempted to seize control to restore order. "I believe the darkest days in Thailand's history are yet to come as we see no swift solution to ongoing divisiveness," Prinn Panitchpakdi, an Asia-Pacific analyst at CLSA brokerage, told Reuters.

Last night, the violence appeared to have spread into several neighbourhoods of Bangkok where it involved fighting between residents and the protesters. One gun battle at a market in a residential area near the Prime Minister's offices left two people dead, according to medical officials.

Dr Chatri Charoenchivakul, an emergency response official, said one of the victims had been shot in the chest. The Emergency Medical Institute said 94 people, including soldiers, were injured in yesterday's clashes.

The violence started before dawn when troops moved in to clear demonstrators who had been out overnight. Many of the clashes took place around the Din Daeng junction, which the demonstrators had blockaded. General Songkitti Chakabakr, Thailand's senior military commander, said in a televised statement that troops would strive "through every peaceful means" to return the situation to normal as soon as possible but that the committee charged with restoring order reserved the right to use force if necessary.

The actions of the troops appear to represent a change in tactics by the authorities. On Saturday, the government's strategy of treating the demonstrators gently allowed protesters to smash their way through a cordon of troops at a summit where leaders from 16 nations were due to discuss the global crisis.

The Opposing Sides...

In the red corner

*The former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been addressing his supporters by video-link from exile in the Middle East, retains much support among Thailand's rural population.

*These country people, who benefited from a series of populist measures he introduced such as free healthcare, ensured his re-election. But he was then ousted by the military when he was out of the country.

*The demonstrators in Bangkok, who call themselves the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), say that the current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva took power illegally. "I don't mind dying right here if it means we become a real democracy," said Tanyawalai Wongsuriyaneth, one of the protesters, yesterday. "I am not here to cause trouble. I just want my rights."

In the yellow corner

*Last year, thousands of yellow-shirted protesters took to the streets, demanding the ousting of two successive governments led by allies of Mr Thaksin, whom they accuse of corruption.

*These demonstrators, comprising members of the business community, former soldiers, supporters of the royal family and the urban middle-class, had also protested in 2005 and 2006 – protests which ultimately triggered a seizure of power by the military.

*Despite branding themselves as democracy campaigners, they actually sought the appointment of a percentage of the country's MPs because they believed the rural poor, from whom Mr Thaksin derives much of his support, were not sufficiently educated to understand politics. They also accused Mr Thaksin of corruption.

Britons warned not to travel to Bangkok

*The Foreign Office has issued a warning to British citizens not to travel to Bangkok unless the visit is "absolutely essential". Britons already in the Thai capital were advised yesterday to stay indoors and to monitor the media and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website for travel advice.

"We strongly advise people to avoid Bangkok if they can, but if you have to fly via the city we advise you to remain at the airport and wait for your connecting flight," said Sean Tipton of ABTA, the travel association which represents more than 5,300 travel agencies and nearly 1,000 tour operators across Britain.

"We are making sure tour operators are aware of the situation. However, Thailand has a big independent market and for those travelling alone or backpacking we advise that you closely monitor the Foreign and Commonwealth Office web page for updates on the situation," Mr Tipton added.

Representatives in Thailand working for the tour operator Thomas Cook said they had been in contact with their customers currently on holiday. "We know that all our customers in Thailand are safe," said a spokesperson. "We are working on a case-by-case basis to try to make sure people don't have to fly via Bangkok or change their holiday dates."

British Airways flights to the capital are currently operating as normal but customers travelling today will be able to change the date of their outward journey to Bangkok free of charge. Customers will not receive a full refund if they cancel their travel, nor will they be able to change their flight to an alternative destination within Thailand.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
Mario Balotelli (left) trudges off at half-time last night, to be substituted during the interval
Life and Style
Could you tell the difference between this and an organic alternative?
food + drink

Culinary experts in The Netherlands thought it was 'fresh' and 'tasty'

Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
Life and Style

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday

Actress sees off speculation about her face in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Arts and Entertainment

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 4 Teacher required for 2 terms

£21500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

Accounts Assistant - Sales Ledger, Sage Line 50 - St Albans

£20000 - £22000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful and w...

EBD Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a quailed Teacher ...

Part Time SEN 1:1 Teacher

£40 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experience SEN Te...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?