Thousands of royalist protesters blockaded the Thai Parliament Tuesday, sparking violent clashes with riot police that injured more than 100 people. The unrest marked an escalation of a four-month campaign to oust a government that was elected by rural and urban poor but is bitterly opposed by influential elites in Bangkok.
Legislators who were bused into the Parliament after police cleared a path found themselves trapped inside the building, as protesters took back the streets. As protesters poured into the area, police used tear gas to drive them back, and eventually led lawmakers out a back exit.
Earlier, Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, who took office only three weeks ago, gave his inaugural speech to a half-empty Parliament before being escorted away. Protesters have insisted that he must resign, and dissolve Parliament, and that he has no legitimacy to lead the country, which has split along social and regional lines during three years of turmoil punctuated by a bloodless coup in 2006.
So far, military chiefs appear to be staying above the fray. Four trucks of soldiers were deployed Tuesday evening near the Parliament in what appeared to be symbolic support for the police. Commanders said publicly they weren't preparing to seize power.
Tuesday's violence was the worst in a month and is a setback for tentative efforts to reconcile the two sides. Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a retired Army general who had sought to broker peace talks with the protesters, resigned Tuesday.
Protesters sustained most of the injuries, including leg amputations blamed on tear gas canisters, police say. Protesters claim other explosives were used. But at least two policemen were reportedly shot in an afternoon clash. Another policeman was stabbed by a flag and needed surgery, the Bangkok Post reported. A man also died in a car explosion nearby, though it isn't yet clear if the incident was related.
Since late August, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a royalist group that seeks to overhaul democracy in Thailand, has occupied the government's executive offices, a move designed to trigger the government's removal. Then, overnight Tuesday, it erected razor-wire barricades around Parliament manned by militia armed with sticks and slingshots, setting the stage for a day of confrontation and chaos.
"They've been adrift over the last couple of weeks. Membership is declining. Now they're declaring the final battle.... It's another PAD publicity stunt," says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia Pacific, a political risk consultancy in Bangkok.
In recent days, two leaders of the PAD, an ad hoc alliance of businessmen, royalists, and unionists, were arrested separately on warrants related to their seizure of the prime minister's office. The arrests were well choreographed and appeared to be part of a strategy by both sides to up the ante.
Government opponents claimed Tuesday that authorities overreacted to the protests and used excessive violence that they say underscores the government's lack of legitimacy. Instead of clearing the streets, police should have negotiated a settlement and not insisted on opening the Parliament, they argue.
"This is a democracy. One can do peaceful protests. They haven't done anything bad. They love the country. They love the king," says Anusart Suwanmongkol, an appointed senator who was among those who boycotted Tuesday's aborted joint session of Parliament.
Thailand's revered King Bhumibol is a constitutional monarch who is considered to be "above politics" but has intervened during past crises, including after deadly clashes in 1992. Many PAD followers accuse former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawtra, whose allies lead the current government, of seeking to end the monarchy, a charge echoed by the military junta that removed Mr. Thaksin in 2006.
Thaksin, who fled to London in August, has denied the charges and pledged loyalty to the crown. But PAD activists denounce him and believe that he is pulling the strings of Mr. Somchai, who is married to Thaksin's younger sister, a politician. Similar accusations were made against Samak Sundaravej, who served as prime minister for seven months before a court ordered him to step down for violating a constitutional ban over a TV cooking show.
Underscoring this royalist backdrop, Queen Sirikit, the king's wife, Tuesday donated $2,900 for the medical expenses of injured protesters, Thai media reported.
Standing by an improvised barricade of three abandoned police pickup trucks, Janeboon, a PAD guard, said a tough stance was necessary to send a signal to the government. He added he had sympathy for ordinary policemen on the other side, but that there wasn't much room for compromise. "Today we hurt and die. Tomorrow we will wake up and fight again," he says.
Not long after, police fired repeated rounds of tear gas and began to take back the streets around the Parliament. Over the next hour, gas hung in the air as protesters hurled bricks and rocks. In successive charges, police pushed through to the back exit of the Parliament and dragged police trucks with burst tires into a protective semicircle. Shortly after, a convoy of luxury cars and SUVs poured through the gates, as members of Parliament hurried home.