Thailand protests' deadly turn deepens tense conflict

This weekend's clashes left more than 20 dead, taking the ongoing Thailand protests to a new level of intensity. 'Red shirt' protesters say the time for talking is over and insist that the prime minister resign and leave the country.

Vincent Yu/AP
A Red Shirt guard shows people a bullet in front of some abandoned Thai Army armored personnel carriers after deadly Thailand protests in Bangkok Sunday morning.

Bloody clashes between government troops and street protesters that left more than 20 dead this weekend have deepened a four-year crisis of legitimacy in Thailand's floundering democracy.

"Red shirt" leaders of the Thailand protests have sharpened their demands for political change by calling for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign and leave the country. The time for talking is over, they say.

Since last month, the group has been camped out in the Thai capital to press for new elections, and tens of thousands of protesters rallied again Sunday night at a barricaded site in the old city. Others have occupied a downtown shopping district for a week.

Government and military officials also struck hawkish tones Sunday, blaming Thailand’s worst political violence in 18 years on agents provocateurs near the protesters’ lines. They gave little ground on reviving peace talks, instead focusing on the use of illegal weapons against their troops.

In turn, protesters seethed at what they see as an Army massacre of unarmed civilians and threatened to escalate their campaign, which has the blessing of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a fugitive from Thai justice who remains popular among rural and working-class voters.

Parade Monday

Red Shirt leaders vowed to parade Monday the corpses of slain protesters around the politically divided capital. On Saturday night, two bodies draped in Thai flags were carried onto a rally stage and displayed to the crowd, alongside a stack of seized military equipment.

"Red Shirts will never negotiate with murderers," said Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader, according to the Associated Press.

Panitan Wattanyagorn, a spokesman for Mr. Abhisit, said the Red Shirts must stop their civil disobedience before political negotiations can resume. “If they’re still breaking laws on the streets, its difficult for him to sit down and talk,” he told a press briefing inside an Army base.

Government officials had predicted that the protests would dwindle by Friday, the start of a week-long New Year vacation. But a clash last week at Parliament prompted the declaration of a state of emergency that pushed the two sides towards confrontation. A humiliating rout on Friday for security forces who failed to defend a satellite station appeared to lead troops to stiffen their response Saturday, with tragic results.

Saturday's violence

The violence began after troops repelled an attack by protesters on an Army base and began to advance on a rally site, firing rubber bullets and tear gas to dispel protesters. But the troops gained little territory and failed to retake the site.

The fighting then intensified after dark along narrow back streets, including an access road to Bangkok’s backpacker hub, where foreign tourists crouched in storefronts.

Mr. Panitan said shots were fired at retreating soldiers, who also came under attack from grenades and homemade explosives. He said they fought back with rubber bullets and fired live rounds into the air, not directly into the crowd. This claim seemed at odds with gunshot wounds sustained by protesters near their barricades. Among the dead was a Japanese cameraman for Reuters who was shot through the chest.

Western diplomats briefed by Thai security forces said that the botched crackdown showed that the rally could only be quelled by overwhelming force, given the presence of rogue gunmen. But such an operation would likely result in higher casualties and deepen the crisis. “They were completely unprepared yesterday,” says a Western diplomat.

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