Thousands of Thai troops firing automatic weapons and tear gas forced anti-government protesters rampaging across Bangkok to retreat yesterday to their main encampment ringing the seat of government. The demonstrators said they were prepared for a “final stand.”
In a major escalation of Thailand’s ongoing turmoil, protesters and combat troops were locked in a series of tense confrontations and cat-and-mouse chases for 12 hours. At least 79 people were reported injured. The army spokesman said troops fired blank bullets into the crowds and live shots overhead.
As evening fell, some of the 6,000 troops deployed in Bangkok began moving toward Government House, where the protesters have been holding out since March 26. An estimated 5,000 of the demonstrators were gathered in the Government House area.
“This will be our final stand. I beg that you return here and face them together,” protest leader Jatuporn Phromphan shouted from a platform near the seat of government. “We will use peaceful means and stay right here to end their violence.”
Army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd said troops were narrowing the area of unrest.
“It’s going to take time and we are trying to cause as little loss as possible,” he said.
Hundreds of soldiers and police assembled at the Royal Plaza, about 1.6km from Government House, confronting about 100 female protesters who knelt down and screamed: “Please stop, brothers.”
Some hugged the soldiers.
“I don’t mind dying right here if it means we become a real democracy. You can kill me right here. I am not here to cause trouble. I just want my rights,” said Tanyawalai Wongsuriyaneth, 46, a female protester returning to join the rally at Government House.
The demonstrators are demanding the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, saying his four-month-old government came to power illegally.
Earlier, the protesters were stationed at a half-dozen points in Bangkok, defying government-imposed state-of-emergency measures that ban gatherings of more than five people.
Protesters commandeered public buses to block several key intersections, set tires and vehicles on fire and sent two unmanned buses, one of them burning, hurtling toward lines of soldiers. The bus swerved and then ricocheted off trees on the side of the road before coming to a halt, with no one injured. The other bus also crashed without injuring anyone.
Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra accused the government of lying to cover up deaths in an army crackdown on protesters yesterday.
Speaking to CNN from an undisclosed location, the fugitive tycoon said soldiers who were seen earlier firing rounds into the air to disperse his rioting supporters in Bangkok had killed “many.”
“They trapped the people … Many people died … They even take the dead bodies up on the truck and take them away. They’re trying to confuse everything,” Thaksin told the channel.
“You try to lie to the whole world, you try to lie to the people, but … it’s impossible,” he added.
Later last night, a security guard said that a building in the education ministry complex was ablaze after being hit by petrol bombs.
Protesters also seized seven buses and set them on fire in front of the nearby UN building, sending flames shooting high into the sky.
“There were several bomb blasts at 5pm and suddenly the fire broke out,” education ministry security guard Pradap Wongdara said.