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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?