Thai PM flees on foot to escape violent protests

The Independent

Two protesters killed during clashes with riot police inside parliamentary compound in Bangkok. Army chief reassures public that his troops are unarmed and there is no prospect of a military coup

By Andrew Buncombe, Asia Correspondent

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

A demonstrator taunts police close to Parliament in Bangkok

 

The Prime Minister of Thailand was forced to scale a fence and flee in a police helicopter yesterday as thousands of protesters barricaded parliament in the latest twist in the country’s seething political turmoil.

Riot police fired tear gas in clashes with activists who had vowed to prevent politicians from leaving the building in the capital, Bangkok. A bomb exploded near where the demonstrators had gathered, killing at least two people.

In total, some 400 people were hurt, including eight police who were shot or stabbed. Four rioters lost parts of their arms or legs as tear-gas canisters exploded near them. With no end to the violence in sight last night, troops were deployed alongside police to help restore order.

Bangkok has been rocked by unrest for two months. The Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, was sworn in on 25 September after his predecessor Samak Sundaravej, a former television chef, was forced to stand down after opposition activists held weeks of rallies and a court ruled that he had acted unconstitutionally. Since taking office, Mr Somchai has been forced to run the government from a makeshift office at the city’s Don Muang airport.

Yesterday’s violence, which began shortly after 6am as police first cleared the street outside parliament, surged again in the afternoon as officers fired numerous volleys of tear gas to break through the protesters’ cordon so that MPs could leave for the evening.

But last night some politicians were uncertain whether they would have to stay put. “We are under siege now,” said Kuthep Saikrajang, a spokesman for the ruling People’s Power Party (PPP) by telephone from inside the building. “But we will have to figure out a way to get out without using force.”

The protests are organised by the staunchly royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – a coalition that claims both Mr Somchai and Mr Samak are proxies for the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – Mr Somchai’s brother-in-law – who was forced out in a coup in 2006 after being accused of corruption. Although he subsequently returned to Thailand, he returned to exile in Britain this summer rather than facing corruption charges.

These latest clashes came after PAD demonstrators, who have occupied the grounds of Mr Somchai’s office since August, pushed forward their protest overnight on Monday by marching to the nearby parliament building. There, they put up barricades of barbed wire and tyres in an effort to prevent Mr Somchai from delivering his first policy speech to parliament. Yesterday, even before the violence worsened, the Deputy Prime Minister, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, said he was resigning because he had failed to negotiate a settlement with demonstrators. His departure will do nothing to help the ruling coalition’s position.

Then, in scenes of farce and after delivering his address 90 minutes late, Mr Somchai had to sneak from the building, climb a fence and be spirited away in a US-made Huey police helicopter. He did so to avoid protesters who had blocked all four entrances to parliament. As he did so, one of the protest leaders, Somsak Kosaisuk, yelled: “Victory is near. We are surrounding the building.”

Later, Mr Somchai flew by helicopter to the military’s supreme command to meet the head of the army, General Anupong Paojinda, and the Supreme Commander, Boonsrang Niempradit. Later, a spokesman said unarmed troops from the army, navy and air force were being deployed “across Bangkok, not just at the flash points, to maintain law and order”.

The move will undoubtedly trigger concerns that generals could yet launch another coup. Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the military has staged 18 such takeovers. However, General Anupong, sought to reassure people that there would be no army takeover, saying: “Public, please do not panic. The troops are being sent out not because there is another coup. Absolutely, the military will not stage a coup. It’s not good for our country.”

As Queen Sirikit gave £1,600 to treat the injured, police were forced to defend their actions. “We did not use any weapon other than tear gas and shields to clear the path for parliamentarians to go into the building,” said the deputy police chief, Major- General Umnuey Nimmanno. “It is conventional practice in dispersing a crowd. We did not use disproportionate force.”

Loyal royalists: The PAD

The People’s Alliance for Democracy is an opposition coalition whose senior figures include a media tycoon, a politician and a general. It wants to change the Thai political system but it is far from clear that it is the champion of democracy its name suggests. The group would like to see many MPs appointed to parliament rather than having all of them elected. They say the rural poor, from whom the ruling PPP draws much of its support, are too uneducated to properly takepart in politics.

The organisation, which also styles itself as a defender of Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, drew widespread backing in its anti-Thaksin demonstrations in 2005 and 2006. But a recent survey suggested that most people in Bangkok oppose its campaign against the government of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

One of the PAD leaders, Chamlong Srimuang, a former general, was arrested at the weekend on charges of insurrection. Yesterday, a court said he should be held in custody for 10 days for questioning. Quite how the crisis will be resolved is unclear. The PAD has said it will continue to demonstrate unless there is real political reform. What is clear is that the turmoil does not help tourism or investment from overseas. After a state of emergency was declared in August, the number of tourists arriving in Bangkok fell by 30 per cent.

Thai army deployed in Bangkok after bomb leads to coup fears

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The Thai military has been called on to the streets of Bangkok after a day of violence by anti-government protesters sparked fears of a coup.

 

A military spokesman said that soldiers would help the police to restore order after a woman was killed by a car bomb, shots were fired at riot police and there were repeated clashes between police and demonstrators, which left 190 people injured.

The bombing occurred during the afternoon outside the offices of the Chart Thai party – a member of the governing coalition – less than a mile from parliament where clashes occurred earlier in the day. The victim, who was driving a white car, has not yet been identified.

An hour a man with a handgun opened fire at a line of riot police, sending them running for cover. Two officers were hit, one in the stomach and the other in the neck.

For months the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has been attempting to overthrow the elected government. Since August they have illegally occupied the grounds of Government House. On Monday night they moved their protest to parliament, where the new prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, was planning to make his maiden policy speech.

Just after dawn riot police moved in, firing tear gas to clear a way to parliament. Hospital officials said that around 24 people were seriously wounded, including two who had parts of their legs blown off by exploding tear-gas canisters.

The deputy prime minister, General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who was recently brought into the government to negotiate with the protesters, resigned over the clashes.

The parliamentary session went ahead, but was boycotted by the opposition Democrat Party, who are linked to the PAD. “This is an overreaction by using excessive force. The government must take responsibility,” said the party’s spokesman Buranja Smutharaks.

Following the debate members of parliament were trapped inside the building by the protesters outside.

“We are under siege now,” said Kuthep Saikrajang, of the People’s Power Party, which leads the government, speaking by mobile phone from inside. “But we will have to figure out a way to get out without using force.”

But force was used when police once again used tear gas to clear an exit, sparking fresh clashes.

Mr Somchai left the building earlier, reportedly by climbing a fence, and arrived by helicopter to meet with the army chief General Anupong Paochinda.

The army has launched 18 coups since 1932, frequently citing civil unrest as its justification for doing so. Elements within the army are regarded as sympathetic to the PAD.

General Anupong has repeatedly ruled out another coup just as his predecessor as army chief did – until he toppled an elected prime minister in 2006.

The PAD accuse the government of being proxies for Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled as prime minister by the 2006 coup. In late August they occupied Government House and have been camped on the lawns ever since.

Although they have repeatedly shifted their political demands, they consistently argue that the majority of rural voters choose corrupt politicians and the one-person-one-vote system should be replaced with a partly appointed parliament.

Mr Somchai, who is Mr Thaksin’s brother in law, was sworn in just two weeks ago after a court disqualified his predecessor from office for hosting a television cookery programme. Mr Somchai leads a coalition government that controls around two thirds of the lower house of parliament following elections at the end of last year.

Analysts characterise the crisis as a conflict between the majority of Thai voters, who have repeatedly elected economic populists, against an urban elite and conservative political establishment who are resisting a threat to their interests.

The PAD’s supporters range from students to middle aged women to thugs armed with metal pipes and golf clubs. They stress their loyalty to country’s revered monarchy, and although the crowds rarely exceed a few thousand they are extremely well resourced.

At the protests there was free food, bottled water and free towels to help people cope with the effects of tear gas. Many had helmets and goggles.

The head of the Vajira Hospital in Bangkok said that Queen Sirikit had donated 100,000 baht (£1,600) to the hospital to help treat the injured protestors.

 

Thai police fire tear gas on protesters, Deputy PM resigns

BANGKOK (AFP) — Thai police fired tear gas Tuesday to try to disperse anti-government protesters blocking parliament, injuring 116 people as months of political turmoil boiled over, police and medics said.

Twenty-one people suffered serious injuries, a medical official said, as police tried to disperse several thousand protesters surrounding parliament who tried to stop the first policy speech by new Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

The address went ahead, but the special session ended after two hours as protesters continued to mass outside, forcing Somchai and five ministers to climb over a fence to escape the mob, an AFP correspondent saw.

“House Speaker Chai Chidchob called the meeting off because he is concerned that the situation could deteriorate,” government whip Witaya Buranasiri told AFP, adding that parliament would not convene on Wednesday.

Hundreds of lawmakers remain locked inside the parliament building, as protesters regrouped and surrounded all the exits.

The crackdown caps months of unrest, which began in late May when protesters launched their campaign to overthrow Thailand’s elected government because of its ties to Thaksin Shinawatra, the premier ousted in a September 2006 coup.

Supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) stormed Bangkok’s main government compound in late August and have been barricaded there ever since.

Late Monday, thousands heeded a call from a protest leader to march on parliament for a “final battle,” prompting about 4,500 police including riot squads to move in and fire canisters of tear gas early Tuesday.

“Police have had to disperse the protesters by firing tear gas to make way for MPs to enter parliament,” metropolitan police Major General Anan Srihiran told AFP.

One of Thailand’s five deputy prime ministers, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, resigned over the crackdown, saying his role as chief negotiator with the protesters had been compromised.

Nanthana Mesprasart, supervisor at Bangkok’s emergency medical response centre, said one man had his left foot amputated after it was injured in the chaos. A journalist was among the 116 people who received treatment.

Parliament, however, went ahead with its session on Tuesday, despite a boycott by the opposition Democrat Party.

“The Democrats will this morning boycott the session because the government has used force to crack down on peaceful protesters,” party spokesman Buranja Smutharaks told AFP.

Somchai, who was sworn in on September 18, went ahead with his speech, which the constitution says he must read to parliament before his new government can begin implementing its policies.

He said his new administration was “determined to create national reconciliation”, but as he spoke protesters who had earlier scattered returned to the parliament building, blocking off the exits.

Lieutenant Colonel Thanee Sanguanjeen, a senior police officer, estimated that up to 4,000 protesters remained on the streets.

Thai media, meanwhile, announced that Queen Sirikit was donating 100,000 baht (3,000 dollars) to pay medical expenses for the wounded protesters, who claim they are carrying out their campaign out of loyalty to the palace.

The PAD began their protests in May against the ruling People Power Party’s plans to amend the constitution, claiming the changes were aimed at helping Thaksin escape graft charges.

Former prime minister Samak Sundaravej was forced from office in September after a court ruled he had accepted illegal payments for a TV show, and his successor Somchai formed his new government last month.

Somchai — Thaksin’s brother-in-law — has urged the PAD to leave his offices by November, and had appointed his deputy Chavalit to negotiate with their leaders.

Those talks were jeopardised over the weekend with the arrest of key PAD head Chamlong Srimuang and protest organiser Chaiwat Sinsuwong.

 
 
 
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