BANGKOK, September 2 – Thailand’s Prime Minister declared a state of emergency in the capital Tuesday after thousands of his opponents and supporters clashed in the worst street violence here in more than a decade.
One person was killed and 44 were injured, some of them from gunshot wounds, as a week of mass protests calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej spilled over into bloodshed overnight.
Samak called on the protesters to leave the main government complex, which they have occupied for the last week.
"They must be moved from the Government House," Samak told a nationally televised news conference. "I had no other choice but to declare a state of emergency in Bangkok in order to solve the problem for once and for all."
The emergency decree essentially gives control of the capital to Thailand’s powerful army chief, General Anupong Paojinda, just eight months after Samak’s civilian government was elected to end more than a year of military rule.
Anupong now has the power to break up any gathering of more than five people, but he insisted that he would try to negotiate with the protesters rather than resorting to violence.
"Our methods will be to improve understanding among Thais and make everyone aware that there can still be a peaceful solution through negotiations," Anupong told reporters.
"I can ensure to every person in the press that police and the Thai military will not use violence to any civilian by any means," Anupong said in English.
But protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which is pushing for the premier to stand down, were gearing up for a fight.
Activists rolled barbed wire across streets in central Bangkok, while donning motorcycle helmets and patrolling key areas with golf clubs and wooden sticks.
"We will stay here. The government must decide whether to raid our camp or not," Pibhop Dhongchai told reporters inside the heavily barricaded government complex.
Thai police called in army reinforcements early Tuesday to rein in the clashes, setting nerves on edge in a country that has seen 18 military coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
"The situation’s touch and go. Now with the emergency decree, we have moved to the next stage of brinkmanship," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University.
He said the PAD wanted to spark even worse violence in hopes of inciting a military coup or a mass uprising against the government.
"They want to draw blood and they’ve come to the point where they’re willing to be martyrs in order to achieve their aims," Thitinan said.
The PAD accuses Samak of acting on behalf of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in exile in Britain after the same protest group helped provoked a military coup that toppled his government in 2006.
No one was killed during that coup, making this the deadliest political violence since the Bloody May massacre in 1992 when dozens of pro-democracy activists were killed on the same streets where Tuesday’s protests took place.
The protests which began a week ago expanded nationwide over the weekend, temporarily closing three regional airports and crippling railway services.
They further escalated Monday when Thailand’s biggest union called for a strike to add to the pressure on Samak, threatening to disrupt Bangkok’s water and power supplies from Wednesday.
PAD gathers most of its support from Bangkok’s traditional elite and a portion of the middle class. Its leaders openly disparage the merit of votes cast by the nation’s rural poor, who have thrown their support behind Thaksin and now Samak.
Thaksin’s allies still fill many top seats in government, and Samak won elections in December by campaigning as Thaksin’s proxy.
In addition to demanding that Samak resign, PAD wants an overhaul of Thailand’s system of government, saying only 30 percent of seats in parliament should be elected, with the rest appointed.