The violence erupted after thousands of heavily armed riot police tried to clear protest sites around government buildings, which have been occupied or blockaded by demonstrators for months. Shots were fired by both sides and an explosive was thrown into police ranks.
The day of deadly clashes came as Thailand’s anti-graft body summoned Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to testify in an investigation into a failed government rice subsidy program. If found guilty of mismanagement, Ms. Yingluck could be forced to step down.
“What we have seen today is how quickly things can escalate,” says Maria Harrison, senior analyst at the global risk firm IHS. She says the fact both police and protesters are armed means any sort of mass action in Thailand is risky.
“The police have the necessary equipment, they have tear gas and rubber bullets but these are things that provoke as much as they defend... the protesters have shown they’ll respond with equal force.”
Authorities raided several protest sites early Tuesday and arrested over 100 demonstrators under a state of emergency declared last month. Security officials said 15,000 security personnel, including riot police, had been deployed as part of the operation to clear out the protest camps, dubbed "Peace for Bangkok."
In response, protesters led by opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban confronted riot police who were trying to reclaim sites near the prime minister's compound, which she has temporarily vacated.
It’s not clear who fired the first round but a burst of gunfire between the two sides left one policemen shot in the head and several others seriously injured.
In a second incident shortly afterwards, a suspected grenade was lobbed at police. The blast injured at least four officers and sent shrapnel and dust flying.
The Erawan Medical Center, a body that monitors hospitals, said on its website that three protesters had been killed in gunfire and 64 people had been wounded.
By the afternoon most police had withdrawn from protest sites and the streets were quiet. National Security Council Chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr said that officials were meeting Tuesday night to decide whether to push on with the operation to clear the camps, according to Reuters.
No attempt has yet been made to deal with other major protest sites in Bangkok including the city’s largest park and a nearby upscale shopping district that was barricaded in 2010 by a rival protest group, a protracted standoff that ended in a bloody military crackdown.
In general, police have moved cautiously against Mr. Suthep's movement, and other camps have been evacuated after negotiations. Even when demonstrators have overrun government buildings, the response has been muted. Tuesday's escalation may indicate that the government is losing patience.
Thailand also has a history of peaceful political protests punctuated by deadly violence, often instigated by unseen gunmen that both sides try to disown. Rooftop snipers played a role in fomenting the 2010 unrest, which pitted demonstrators against a military-backed government in which Suthep served as deputy prime minister.
Protest leaders on Tuesday remained defiant.
“The opinion of the masses turned against the police today for their inhumane attempt to break up peaceful demonstrations,” a senior protest leader told The Christian Science Monitor by phone. He says he was forced into hiding because of an attempt by the government to arrest him and asked to remain anonymous.
“This incident will enlarge Suthep’s following. It is only a matter of time before the government falls,” he says.
Tuesday’s indictment of Yingluck by the National Anti-Corruption Commission comes two weeks after a snap election that she called in the face of mounting dissent. The election results are yet to be announced because protesters prevented Thais from voting in some districts while others had no candidates, leaving Thailand in legislative limbo.
Yingluck is widely assumed to have won reelection, but her opponents hope the graft charges could force her out before final results are declared. The commission accuses the prime minister, who was first elected in 2011 in a landslide victory, of ignoring warnings that the subsidy program was fostering corruption and causing huge financial losses. It summoned her to hear the charges on Feb. 27.
Speaking Tuesday at a televised press conference, Yingluck defended the subsidy program and said her rivals were causing delays in payments to rice farmers. “It’s a pity that Thai rice farmers’ dreams of a better life were destroyed by political games,” she said.