Thai protest leader's attempted assassination shatters hope for calm

The prime minister Friday extended the state of emergency he declared last week after rival protesters descended on the capital.

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    A shell casing from an automatic weapon is marked by police as evidence Friday in Bangkok, Thailand. Sondhi Limthongkul, one of the founders of Thailand's royalist "yellow shirt" movement, survived an assassination attempt Friday.
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Days after Thai authorities brought an end to massive antigovernment protests, elevating hopes for national reconciliation, an assassination attempt has shattered the Asian kingdom's momentary peace.

Gunmen wounded Sondhi Limthongkul, leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), commonly known at the "yellow shirts," in an early morning attack Friday. Mr. Limthongkul's organization shut down the Thai international airport for eight days in December and is the main rival of the "red shirt" movement, whose protests created a state of emergency in Thailand a week ago.

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Limthongkul, a media mogul, was on his way to a TV station to host his regular talk show when two vehicles pulled beside his vehicle and opened fire. "At least two attackers followed Mr Sondhi's car, overtook it and sprayed it with about 100 rounds of gunfire from AK-47 and M-16s,'' police Col. King Kwaengwisatchaicharn told the BangkokPost.com. The rifle fire injured Limthongkul, his driver, and one of his body guards.

Doctors have stabilized Limthongkul, but it remains unclear who was behind the attempt on his life, reports The Nation, an English-language Thai newspaper.

[T]hose close to him said he had too many enemies to pinpoint who could have masterminded the assassination attempt. He has heavily criticized the police and the military over their handling of the pro-Thaksin red-shirted protests and called for removal of police and military leaders.

PAD members oppose the return of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed from power in a 2006 coup. They are mostly royalists, middle class, and businessmen. Their opponents accuse them of being antidemocratic because they support appointed officials instead of elected. Following the attempted murder of Limthongkul, Time magazine reports that PAD lawyers have accused their red shirt rivals.

A lawyer for the PAD said his group would not respond to the assassination attempt with violence. "We want the way of peace, not payback. We will only use violence to defend ourselves, as is permissible under the law. But this is bad. It means a civil war is starting, and Thailand could end up like Rwanda," said Puchong Tirawatana. Puchong blamed the Red Shirts for the assassination attempt on Sondhi, and said there were police and military men who were red shirt members or sympathizers. Red Shirt leadership and the police have yet to comment.

Meanwhile, Asia Times reports that following the recent military dispersal of protesters, pro-Thaksin elements planned to launch a "covert struggle" of violence in the country. For the past two years the group has received weapons via Cambodia and its leaders say it is ready to conduct a "better-armed" resistance.

Whether the assassination attempt against Sondhi heralds the violent beginning of a pro-Thaksin hit-and-run insurgency aimed against the government and the UDD's declared "aristocratic" and "establishment" enemies is still unclear. The armed attack on Sondhi, some analysts note, comes on the heels of a foiled arson attack against the main offices of the Bangkok Bank and Charoen Pokphand Group, two of the country's largest and most influential corporations.

Security remains tight following the attack and nation will extend the official state of emergency in the capital and surrounding suburbs. Although Xinhua reports that the Prime Minister's secretary-general Panitan Wattanayagorn said the assassination attempt affected this decision, the Thai News Agency reports that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told journalists the decision was unrelated to the incident.

Speaking at a news conference after a special Cabinet meeting at Government House, the prime minister pledged that the enforcement of the emergency decree would not last long, but the government has currently needed to restore normalcy with measures authorised by the special law, which will be revoked in a due course.

The BBC reports that the "attack will increase tension between reds and yellows and lead to greater factionalism in an already deeply divided country." Already the prime minister has been moved to an undisclosed location due to concerns for his safety.

Although PAD has not participated in any major demonstrations since the airport take over, The Times of London reports that the attack was not entirely unprovoked.

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