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.