Bangkok Protests: The Government Strikes Back

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Roslan Rahman / AFP / Getty Images

Red-shirted supporters of fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra scuffle with Thai riot police officers during continued anti-government protests in central Bangkok on April 10, 2010.

After two days of being pushed around and humiliated by anti-government protesters, Thailand's security forces began pushing back on Saturday. It was a day that saw the first bloodshed since the protests began in Bangkok on March 12. But by mid-evening both sides had called on their forces to retreat. It was unclear who held the upper hand in what is becoming a battle for survival by the current Thai government.

At least one person was reported killed, and more than 150 injured in clashes between soldiers and the protesters known as the Red Shirts for the color they wear, as tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and some live rounds were fired on a major avenue in the old quarter of Bangkok. Hostilities erupted around midday after about 300 Red Shirts attempted to breach the walls and lines of troops surrounding the First Regiment army base. The base is located on an avenue adjacent to the Phan Fa Bridge, one of two major intersections the protesters have seized in the capital and occupied during the past month. At times, they have drawn as many as 100,000 demonstrators, but an army spokesman said only about 8,500 were on the streets on Saturday.

By nightfall, the fighting had intensified, with gunfire heard repeatedly in the old quarter. About 20 soldiers were wounded when protesters hurled bombs at them at an intersection known as Kok Wua, not far from the Democracy Monument. Several television reports said protesters used guns seized from troops to fire at soldiers. Government House, where the Prime Minister normally works, was struck with two M-79 grenades. The government had shut down the city's elevated commuter rail line after protest leaders threatened to seize it, and troops were closing off two main bridges leading to the capital to prevent more protesters from entering the old quarter.

Protest leader Nattawut Saikua said the fatality was a Red Shirt. A government news agency reported the protester died after being clubbed in the head. Another protest leader, Arisman Pongruangrong, who had threatened to burn down Bangkok at the beginning the protest, declared "war has come." But Nattawut sounded more conciliatory, asking on stage for a senior military officer to call him and urging protesters not to seek revenge at the moment. By 9 p.m., a military spokesman said troops had been ordered to pull back and not attempt to seize Phan Fa. Nattawut responded by telling protesters to also fall back to Phan Fa, but it was not clear how much control protest leaders still had over the situation as street battles raged on.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said during an afternoon press conference, "The government would like to assure the public that the use of force will be reasonable." Later that evening, Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said, "A lot of soldiers have been injured. We have carried out measures step by step. Protesters countered by every means including the use of bombs and real bullets." Local television reported that one foreign journalist had been injured by a bullet and was hospitalized. Most injuries before nightfall appeared to have been from rubber bullets and tear gas and blows. Around 6 p.m., helicopters began dropping tear gas on protesters at the Phan Fa intersection.

The protesters are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva step down and call a new election. They are mainly supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006 and now lives abroad rather than serve a prison term for a corruption conviction. After protesters invaded the parliament building on Wednesday, Abhsiit declared a state of emergency and issued arrest warrants for 27 protest leaders. The order bans public gatherings and under its provisions the government shut down a television station run by protest leaders which the government claimed was broadcasting distortions.

On Friday, however, several thousand protesters overran the broadcasting terminal for the station, forcing police and soldiers to essentially surrender and agree to let the station broadcast. After protesters withdrew, the soldiers later retook the station and shut down the broadcasts again. But the security forces had been embarrassed. Prime Minister Abhisit made a television address that evening, admitting that his supporters had been disheartened by the day's events. But, he said, "The government cannot be discouraged. With righteousness, we will win the day."

The ease with which the protesters defeated a combined force of police and soldiers at the television station raised speculation over whether the security forces fully support the Prime Minister. Both the Prime Minister and his security chiefs have appeared reluctant to use force to break up the protests, but results of an online poll by the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper said that nearly 60% of respondents supported the use of force to end the demonstrations.

Emboldened by their victories of the past few days, a contingent of Red Shirts attempted to overrun the First Regiment base on Saturday, only to discover a new resolve among the soldiers. Troops slowly pushed back the demonstrators, who threw bottles, rocks, sticks and iron traffic barriers. The soldier responded with water cannon and tear gas. Government spokesman Panitan said live rounds were fired in the air, and rubber bullets fired at the crowd. Red shirt protesters claimed live rounds were fired at them.

The soldiers succeeded in pushing the Red Shirts back several hundred meters, taking an intersection in front of the regional headquarters of the United Nations. But by nightfall they had failed to take the Phan Fa intersection. Gunshots were heard near the Democracy Monument by photographers for The Nation newspaper.

Across town, Red Shirts flooded into the Rajaprasong intersection, a major commercial center in the capital that they have occupied for more than a week ands where protest leaders denounced the government. A contingent of Border Patrol Police sent to close off a road to the intersection were pushed back by protesters. "If they come back, we'll push them back again," shouted a Red Shirt holding a stick.

At the urging of protest leaders, hundreds of Red Shirts in the northern province Chiang Mai and the northeastern province of Khon Kaen surrounded provincial halls. They had yet to overrun them. Protest leaders had encouraged Red Shirts to seize provincial halls around the country.

As darkness fell on Bangkok, it was not clear if the army would continue its operations throughout the night or wait until morning to resume trying to take back the city's streets. "All that happened today so far may come to nothing, depending on whether government can hold on to the slim advantage they earned today," said Tulsathit Thaptim, an editor at The Nation.