A furious Thai senator has punched his colleague in the face in the midst of a sitting session as tensions flared over who was to blame for the deaths in custody of 78 Muslims in the kingdom's south last week.
In the unprecedented scuffle, Bangkok senator General Pratin Santiprapob, a former national police chief, took a swing at his counterpart from Mae Hong Son province, Adul Wanchaithanawong, who had stormed from his seat towards him.
The brawl occurred as another senator from the capital, Chermsak Pinthong, a prominent critic of the government, released a booklet criticizing the military's handling of a protest last week that led to the 78 deaths.
Officials said the Muslims died after they were piled into military trucks for transport into custody on Oct. 25 following a demonstration at Tak Bai in Narathiwat. Chermsak claimed that he had traveled to the region to interview doctors over the deaths.
"This incident has hurt the reputation of the Senate," said Upper House Speaker Suchon Charlieklue. "I hope we're not going to turn into a Taiwanese parliament."
In the normally sedate senate, Adul interrupted Chermsak as he spoke on the podium to tell him he had spoken for long enough, prompting Pratin to leap to his defense and allude to "somebody" being a major drug trader.
Adul demanded that Pratin name who he was referring too, but Pratin sat silently. Then Adul leapt to his feet and walked towards Pratin, who stood up and made a double jab at Adul's face as stunned senators looked on.
"It was my instinct to defend myself because Adul looked threatening," the former police boss told reporters afterwards.
The meeting continued after Pratin was escorted from the chamber by security.
To lose one's temper in public in Thailand is seen as a serious loss of face, particularly for people in positions of respect.
Meanwhile, warnings that Muslim insurgents may try to abduct Buddhist teachers and students prompted most schools in the violence-wracked southern provinces to close yesterday, education officials said.
Education Minister Adisai Bodharamik said he had warned Buddhist teachers in the three Muslim-majority provinces they might be targets of attacks and hostage-taking by the militants.
An official in Narathiwat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said only 41 of the province's 351 schools remained open yesterday, a day after a Buddhist leader in the province was beheaded by suspected rebels.
Most schools in Yala province and some in Pattani were also shut, the official said.
Elsewhere in the south, a Buddhist rubber tapper was slashed to death and two other people were wounded by gunfire, with the incidents seen by officials as revenge for the deaths of 85 Muslim demonstrators last week.
The body of Nguan Neiwton, a Buddhist rubber tapper, was found late on Tuesday in a rubber plantation in Yala province, police Lieutenant Colonel Narin Boosaphan said. His head was brutally slashed by a machete, the officer said.
In the third province, Pattani, a gunman on the back seat of a motorcycle opened fire on Wichien Wonchan, a road construction worker, seriously wounding him in the back, police Lieutenant Suvit Phoosathit said. A road sweeper was also wounded by gunfire in a separate incident, Suvit said.
"The troubles in the south have come with the global realities of a more radical brand of Islam in some areas," Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told an economics conference in Singapore via videolink from Bangkok.