Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra
BANGKOK: Gun battles erupted between Thai police and anti-government protesters in Bangkok yesterday and four people were killed and dozens wounded as authorities made their most determined effort yet to clear demonstrators from the streets.
In a day of tangled developments in Thailand’s long-running political crisis, the country’s anti-corruption body announced it was filing charges against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra relating to a rice subsidy scheme that has fuelled middle-class opposition to her government.
In a related development, the Government Savings Bank (GSB) said it was calling back a loan to the state farm bank, that manages the rice subsidy scheme, after a high volume of withdrawals by GSB depositors apparently intent on undermining the government’s subsidy programme.
The clashes were the most intense in the latest instalment of an eight-year political battle broadly pitting the Bangkok middle class and royalist establishment against the poorer, mostly rural supporters of Yingluck and her billionaire brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Witnesses heard gunfire and saw police firing weapons in the area around Phanfa Bridge in the old quarter of the city. Police said they had come under fire from a sniper on a rooftop in the area and that M-79 grenades were also fired.
“One policeman has died and 14 police were injured,” national police chief Adul Saengsingkaew said. “He was shot in the head.”
Security officials said separately four police officers had been wounded by shrapnel.
The Erawan Medical Center, which monitors hospitals, said on its website that two protesters, both men aged 52 and 29, had also been killed. The centre said 59 people had been wounded. It did not provide a breakdown of how many of the wounded were police and how many were civilians.
Security officials said earlier that 15,000 officers were involved in the operation, “Peace for Bangkok Mission,” to reclaim protest sites around central Bangkok’s Government House and other government offices in the north of the capital.
Yingluck has been forced to abandon her offices in Government House by the protesters, who have also blocked major intersections since mid-January.
Police said about 100 protesters had been arrested in an early morning operation to clear demonstrators from another protest site near the Energy Ministry.
Trouble started with clouds of teargas near Government House and soon police were crouching behind riot shields as officers clashed with protesters. It was not clear who had fired the teargas and the authorities blamed protesters.
By mid-afternoon, police had largely withdrawn from protest sites and the streets were quiet.
Thailand’s military has remained aloof from the latest crisis but an intensification of the violence would raise the likelihood of the generals feeling compelled to intervene, and possibly removing the government, to end the clashes.
The protesters are trying to oust Yingluck, whom they view as a proxy of Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon toppled in a military coup in 2006.