The Thai Army warned that it would use live ammunition against the "red shirt" protesters should they clash with the military. The military's warning marks a significant escalation in rhetoric around the political standoff in Bangkok.
The Bangkok Post reports that the military is presenting a "newly muscular approach" to dealing with the so-called red shirts, who believe the ouster of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was illegal and want current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva removed from office. The red shirts, many of them rural poor, have tied up the Thai capital with anti-government protests for four weeks.
The army adopted gloves-off rhetoric towards the demonstrators who have paralysed parts of the capital and forced major shopping centres to close, wreaking havoc on business life and the tourism industry in particular.
"Security forces will begin by firing tear gas and if they cannot stop protesters, then soldiers will start taking decisive action with live bullets," army spokesman Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said.
The Post adds that the Army expressed particular concern over violent demonstrators "armed with hand grenades, molotov cocktails, and acid." Both pro- and anti-government representatives have condemned such actors as "terrorists."
BBC News writes that this is the first time the army has publicly threatened the red shirts with the use of live ammunition. Before now, the Army had laid out a seven-step escalation process for dealing with the protesters with non-lethal, but progressively harsher, means.
[The process] included a show of force, the use of sound blasters and signal scramblers, followed by fire hoses and water cannon.
[It] then allowed for a possible shield charge, and a baton charge preceding any use of tear gas or pepper spray, culminating in the use of rubber bullets.
Colonel Sansern's latest comments compressed this process down to four steps, ending not in rubber bullets, but live ammunition.
The Army's new warnings come after they deployed into the streets of Bangkok on Monday. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the Army blocked the route the anti-government protesters had planned to take to Bangkok's financial district, forcing the protesters to cancel. The Monitor wrote that the military rollout occurred just a day after members of the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy threatened "yellow shirt" counterprotests next week, should the red shirts remain in Bangkok. The pro-government yellow shirts accuse the red shirts of being a front for former Prime Minister Thaksin.
Indeed, concerns about Thaksin returning to power may be spurring the military's harsh tone toward the anti-government protestors, Reuters writes in a news analysis. Were Prime Minister Abhisit to yield to their demands and dissolve the government, it could clear the way for a pro-Thaksin government, which would gut the Army's leadership and threaten the nation's monarchy.
The bone of contention is an annual reshuffle of the powerful military due in September, when the royalist top brass will hand power to proteges groomed to maintain a status quo that favours Thailand's influential business and establishment elites.
If a government allied to Thaksin -- a wily, graft-convicted tycoon the generals thought they had disposed of in a 2006 coup -- came to power, it would almost certainly lead to an overhaul in the military's chain of command.
An army purged of royalists and loyal to Thaksin would be a doomsday scenario for a military that believes the country's revered monarchy is under attack from Thaksin and the "red shirts" -- a claim the protesters vehemently deny.
But while this perceived threat keeps the possibility of a military coup alive as a means to bar Thaksin from power, Reuters writes that Abhisit's firm stance against the red shirts seems to be making a coup unnecessary. "If Abhisit started to think about dissolving parliament now, then we'll see a coup," a Bangkok-based security analyst told Reuters. "There are questions about his leadership, but no signs he'll give up and, as it stands, the military is still in control."