October 8, 2008

Thai PM Flees on Foot to Escape Violent Protests

By Andrew Buncombe

Two protesters killed during clashes with riot police inside parliamentary compound in Bangkok Army chief reassures public that his troops are unarmed and there is no prospect of a military coup

THE PRIME Minister of Thailand was forced to scale a fence and flee in a police helicopter yesterday as thousands of protesters barricaded parliament in the latest twist in the country's seething political turmoil.

Riot police fired tear gas in clashes with activists who had vowed to prevent politicians from leaving the building in the capital, Bangkok. A bomb exploded near where the demonstrators had gathered, killing at least two people.

In total, some 400 people were hurt, including eight police who were shot or stabbed. Four rioters lost parts of their arms or legs as tear-gas canisters exploded near them. With no end to the violence in sight last night, troops were deployed alongside police to help restore order.

Bangkok has been rocked by unrest for two months. The Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, below, was sworn in on 25 September after his predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, a former television chef, was forced to stand down after opposition activists held weeks of rallies and a court ruled that he had acted unconstitutionally. Since taking office, Mr Somchai has been forced to run the government from a makeshift office at the city's Don Muang airport.

Yesterday's violence, which began shortly after 6am as police first cleared the street outside parliament, surged again in the afternoon as officers fired numerous volleys of tear gas to break through the protesters' cordon so that MPs could leave for the evening.

But last night some politicians were uncertain whether they would have to stay put. "We are under siege now," said Kuthep Saikrajang, a spokesman for the ruling People's Power Party (PPP) by telephone from inside the building. "But we will have to figure out a way to get out without using force."

Most of the protesters eventually left the area around the parliament, regrouping in the grounds of the Prime Minister's office as police moved in.

The protests are organised by the staunchly royalist People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) - a coalition that claims both Mr Somchai and Mr Samak are proxies for the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Mr Somchai's brother-in-law, who was forced out in a coup in 2006 after being accused of corruption. Although he subsequently returned to Thailand, he returned to exile in Britain this summer rather than facing corruption charges.

These latest clashes came after PAD demonstrators, who have occupied the grounds of Mr Somchai's office since August, pushed forward their protest overnight on Monday by marching to the nearby parliament building. There, they put up barricades of barbed wire and tyres in an effort to prevent Mr Somchai from delivering his first policy speech to parliament. Yesterday, even before the violence worsened, the Deputy Prime Minister, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, said he was resigning because he had failed to negotiate a settlement with demonstrators. His departure will do nothing to help the ruling coalition's position.

Then, in scenes of farce and after delivering his address 90 minutes late, Mr Somchai had to sneak from the building, climb a fence and be spirited away in a US-made Huey police helicopter. He did so to avoid protesters who had blocked all four entrances to parliament. As he did so, one of the protest leaders, Somsak Kosaisuk, yelled: "Victory is near. We are surrounding the building."

Mr Somchai flew by helicopter to the military's supreme command to meet the head of the army, General Anupong Paojinda, and the Supreme Commander, Boonsrang Niumpradit. Later, a spokesman said unarmed troops from the army, navy and air force were being deployed "across Bangkok, not just at the flash points, to maintain law and order".

The move will trigger concerns that generals could yet launch another coup. Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the military has staged 18 takeovers. However, General Anupong sought to reassure people that there would be no army takeover: "Absolutely, the military will not stage a coup. It's not good for our country."

As Queen Sirikit gave 1,600 to treat the injured, police were forced to defend their actions. "We did not use any weapon other than tear gas and shields to clear the path for parliamentarians to go into the building," said the deputy police chief, Major-General Umnuey Nimmanno. "It is conventional practice in dispersing a crowd. We did not use disproportionate force."


Number injured in latest protest in Bangkok

Loyal royalists


*The People's Alliance for Democracy is an opposition coalition whose senior figures include a media tycoon, a politician and a general. It wants to change the Thai political system but it is far from clear that it is the champion of democracy its name suggests. The group would like to see many MPs appointed to parliament rather than having all of them elected. They say the rural poor, from whom the ruling PPP draws much of its support, are too uneducated to properly takepart in politics.

The organisation, which also styles itself as a defender of Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, drew widespread backing in its anti-Thaksin demonstrations in 2005 and 2006. But a recent survey suggested that most people in Bangkok oppose its campaign against the government of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

One of the PAD leaders, Chamlong Srimuang, a former general, was arrested at the weekend on charges of insurrection. Yesterday, a court said he should be held in custody for 10 days for questioning. Quite how the crisis will be resolved is unclear. The PAD has said it will continue to demonstrate unless there is real political reform. What is clear is that the turmoil does not help tourism or investment from overseas. After a state of emergency was declared in August, the number of tourists arriving in Bangkok fell by 30 per cent.

Originally published by By Andrew Buncombe ASIA CORRESPONDENT.

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