Thailand risks sliding into civil war

 26 Feb 2014 - 0:00

Premier Shinawatra leaves the Royal Thai Air Force headquarters after a cabinet meeting in Bangkok yesterday.

BANGKOK:  Thailand risks sliding into civil war after a wave of political violence that has claimed 21 lives including several children, top security and army officials warned yesterday. Near-daily gun and grenade attacks in protest-hit Bangkok have raised concerns that a nearly four-month-old political crisis is entering a dangerous new phase with both sides refusing to back down.
More than 700 people have been wounded since demonstrators took to the streets for rolling rallies aimed at ousting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and ending the political dominance of her billionaire family.
The head of Thailand’s equivalent of the FBI warned yesterday that the situation may “escalate into civil war.” Department of Special Investigation chief Tarit Pengdith urged “restraint and patience” on both sides of the political divide, during a televised address by officials handling the security response to the crisis.
His comments echoed a similar warning from the head of the coup-prone army. “Absolutely, there will be civil war if all sides do not respect rules,” General Prayut Chan-O-Cha wrote in an SMS. “The military will do everything for the country and the people, not for a particular side,” he added. Protest and government leaders bear “responsibility for the losses,” Prayut wrote, a day after warning in a rare televised speech that the country risks “collapse” unless it pulls back from the brink.
Government supporters have accused opposition demonstrators of trying to incite the military to seize power, in a country which has seen 18 successful or attempted coups since 1932, but so far the army has remained largely above the fray.
Thailand has been bitterly divided since a bloodless coup by the military in 2006 ousted Yingluck’s elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, as prime minister, unleashing years of political instability. The latest unrest is the deadliest since more than 90 people died during protests by proThaksin “Red Shirts” in 2010 that sparked street clashes and a bloody military crackdown.
Concerns are mounting that the Red Shirts could return to the streets of Bangkok to defend the government, bringing the risk of clashes between rival protesters.
Gunfire rang out early yesterday near a rally camp in a Bangkok park occupied by demonstrators. 
Two people were slightly wounded, officials said. A rally spokesman said that gunmen had attacked the camp but it was not possible to verify his account.
The Red Shirts, mainly drawn from the rural north and northeastern provinces, have held back from demonstrations in the capital since November when several people died after clashes broke out near one of their rallies at a stadium in Bangkok.
They have stepped up their rhetoric in recent days as Yingluck comes under growing pressure.  “We must be ready to come to Bangkok within 24 hours for one purpose -- to protect democracy,” senior Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikuar said at a press conference yesterday.
The Reds will stage rallies over the coming weekends as a show of strength, he added.
Yingluck has been summoned by an anti-corruption panel to hear neglect of duty charges on Thursday that could lead to her removal from office, although it is unclear if she will personally attend the hearing.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for a series of violent incidents, sometimes involving shadowy gunmen armed with semi-automatic weapons. The authorities and the protesters blame each other for the attacks.
The Chinese embassy in Thailand has warned its nationals who are now in Bangkok or about to leave for the city to avoid protest sites.
In a statement posted on its website, the Chinese embassy in Thailand urged Chinese citizens to avoid major demonstration sites in Bangkok, including the Democracy Monument and the Office of the Prime Minister, and enhance vigilance, Xinhua news agency reported.
Chinese citizens can contact the embassy for protection when in need, said the statement.