THAILAND was reeling as a political crisis deepened yesterday after troops fired on demonstrators demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon.
Thousands of riot police and soldiers fanned out through central Bangkok as the streets of the Thai capital, one of Asia's most bustling business centers, became the flashpoint of a charged standoff between the beleaguered government and backers of democratic reforms.
At press time, new violence had erupted as mobs of anti-government protesters set fire to government buildings and fought running street battles with security forces. Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej was expected to address the country on television last night.
General Suchinda, a former military chief who became Thailand's unelected prime minister in April, reiterated his refusal to step down after an estimated 10 to 15 protesters were killed in a clash with security forces early yesterday.
Eyewitnesses said scores of people were injured in the battle between rock- and bottle-throwing demonstrators and troops shrouded in riot gear; some troops patrolled from machine-gun-armed jeeps.
Earlier, the government imposed a state of emergency on the city and three surrounding provinces following the latest in a series of massive popular protests that have thrust Thailand into its worst political crisis in two decades.
"The protests will go on. But I don't know how long," said Chamlong Srimuang, the opposition political leader who has spearheaded the campaign for Suchinda's resignation.
Late yesterday, however, Mr. Chamlong, his wife, and 1,000 opposition activists were under arrest, government officials announced, as the military moved to break up the protest and disperse tens of thouands of demonstrators encircled in a tight security cordon in Bangkok's government district.
Earlier, in an interview in which several reporters submitted written questions to Chamlong as he surveyed the scene of the shooting, the politician admitted in written responses that he ordered the crowd to march toward the main government office "to ask for the last time for Suchinda to step down."
The march, he said, had been "part of the [opposition] plan" in its standoff with the government. Throughout the afternoon, in streets littered with burned-out cars, fire engines, and other vehicles, troops fired into the air and directed water cannons at demonstrators confronting them just a few feet away.
Observers predicted that while the crackdown would hurt Chamlong's organization, it also could fuel new unrest and popular dissent.
"The situation is still very, very tense," says a businessman who was a student activist during Thailand's last violent popular political confrontation in the 1970s.
Chamlong has emerged as the government's main political foe since an inconclusive March 22 election, which brought the controversial ex-governor of Bangkok into political prominence.
After weeks of political maneuvering and controversy, Suchinda, who led a military coup in February 1991 against an elected Thai government, resigned his military post and became the country's top political leader despite failing to run in the election.
Since then, Chamlong and other opposition leaders have led hundreds of thousands of Bangkok residents to the streets, demanding that Premier Suchinda step down and paralyzing political life and one of Southeast Asia's fastest growing economies.
YESTERDAY, Japan and Australia, two key investors in Thailand's explosion of economic growth, voiced concerns about the deteriorating political situation, while other Western embassies put out travel warnings for Thailand, which is heavily dependent upon its large tourist industry.
The military crackdown also took its toll on the local press, as the government imposed stringent censorship and a number of Thai and foreign journalists were injured in the street clash.
The Bangkok Post, the city's most prominent English-language newspaper, appeared with gaping white holes yesterday where coverage of the political events had been censored.
Officials at the Nation, another English-language newspaper, said they feared government retribution for refusing to comply with the censorship. "This emergency is just a cheap and easy way for the military to carry out a violent suppression," says a veteran Thai journalist.
In the wake of the firing by security forces at a main central Bangkok bridge, Chamlong and other opposition leaders charged that the confrontation had been intentionally instigated by "third-hand elements" as a core of demonstrators broke off from the main crowd and started throwing firecrackers, stones, and bottles at the troops just after midnight.
Breaking through the security cordon, the crowd then burned three fire engines and ransacked a police station before being forced to retreat by the troops.