October 8, 2008

Violent Bangkok Protests Trap Parliament Members

By Seth Mydans and Thomas Fuller

In a day of street battles that left more than 300 people wounded, anti-government protesters surrounded Parliament on Tuesday, trapping hundreds of lawmakers inside throughout the afternoon.

Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat escaped over a back fence in the morning after delivering a policy address. But other members were unable to leave for more than five hours, when the police dispersed the massed protesters with volleys of tear gas and cleared the way for them.

The Thai military announced that it would deploy unarmed troops to help the police keep peace in the days to come.

"We ran, ran, ran," said one Parliament member, Niyom Vejkarma, who had stripped off his jacket and tie and fled from the building in his patent leather shoes.

"My eyes are sore," he said, referring to the tear gas that lingered in the air as he and fellow lawmakers stood at a street corner with their cellphones and called their drivers.

The assault on Parliament escalated a six-week sit-in on the grounds of the prime ministers office, a kilometer away, that had forced the government to relocate its business to a former international airport.

The assault and street battles appeared to have been well planned and well supplied. Protesters distributed food, water and masks to protect against tear gas.

They made barricades of tires and razor wire and secured the entrance to the Parliament building. Groups of reinforcements arrived during the afternoon, some carrying banners.

The police attacked repeatedly, firing tear gas cannisters and chasing protesters down alleyways.

The protesters, some wearing motorcycle helmets and masks, some armed with metal rods, machetes and slingshots, threw back tear gas cannisters and used rocks and firecrackers as missiles.

Government medical officials quoted by wire services said 360 people had been wounded, including two who lost parts of their legs.

A police spokesman said several police officers were also wounded, including one who had been stabbed in the abdomen with a metal pole. The Nation newspaper reported on its Web site that two police officers had been shot.

Queen Sirikit, the wife of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, donated 100,000 baht, about $2,900, to Vachira Hospital to help treat the wounded, said the hospitals director, Wanchai Chareonchoktawee. Both sides in the political standoff have claimed allegiance to the monarchy.

"Together we win or lose, we will know it today, we won't give up,' said Anchalee Paireerak, a leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy, the anti-government group that had held street protests since May and continued to occupy the grounds of the prime minister's office.

The People's Alliance is a patchwork coalition of businessmen, academics and activists who accuse the government of being a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a coup in 2006 and who fled to exile in London in August.

The alliance says it wants to modify the country's democratic system to weaken the electoral power of the rural poor, who formed the base of support of Thaksin and now of the governing People Power Party.

Somchai, the current prime minister, is a brother-in-law of Thaksin but has sought to find a compromise with the protesters since taking office three weeks ago. The protesters' aggressive action Tuesday appeared to have derailed the early stages of talks between the two sides.

Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh resigned early in the day, taking responsibility for the failure of the talks.

In his speech before he fled the building, Somchai said, "This government is determined to tackle economic problems and to listen to all sides to find a solution to end the crisis.

Somchai took office after his predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, was forced to step down by a court that had found him guilty of conflict of interest because he was paid for his appearances on a televised cooking show.

During the day of violence, protesters also set fire to parked cars and trucks and smashed the windows of police vans.

A photographer for Reuters said that a protester fired around a dozen shots from a handgun at a line of riot police. It was unclear if any were hit.

About a kilometer from the fighting, an unidentified person was killed when a vehicle exploded near the headquarters of the Chart Thai Party, a member of the six-party government coalition. The police said they suspected that a bomb had caused the explosion.

Earlier in the day, however, the crowd outside Parliament had a sometimes lighthearted air, with middle-class men and women and even a few children joining the crowd.

"I'm here to chase out the government," said Piyanuch Klangrach, 19, a computer science student who was wearing a Mickey Mouse hat.

But a three-wheel "tuk tuk" taxi driver voiced the feelings of many other Thais who had become weary of the protests and the economic damage they had caused. "I'm bored with this," said the driver, Supit Nakham, 42. "The economy is bad. Fewer tourists are coming to Thailand," he said. "There are traffic jams all over the place. I can't work. They should talk this out and the demonstration should stop.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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