Thai riot police fired tear gas and clashed with protesters attempting to stop Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's maiden speech in parliament on Tuesday.
At least 70 people were injured in the morning clash, with nine sustaining serious injuries. Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh resigned after the incident, saying he was responsible.
Several thousand supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have surrounded the Thai parliament in Bangkok as part of a four-month-old street campaign against the government.
Somchai got through the crowd with the help of the police, and gave a speech calling for national reconciliation. He then left the building by climbing onto the roof of a neighbouring building, local media reported. The protesters prevented other members of parliament from leaving.
FRANCE 24 correspondent Cyril Payen reports that later clashes erupted at the main Bangkok police headquarters, and that violence in the streets is far from subdued.
Interviewed by telephone, Sondhi Limthongkul, a communications tycoon who is one of the PAD’s leaders, issued an ultimatum of 6:00 pm local time (GMT+7) for the government to resign.
“We are more determined than ever,” he said. “Today, either the government falls or we do.”
He did not say what the protesters would do if the government does not resign.
The PAD, a coalition of business leaders, academics and activists, accuses Somchai and his government of being proxies for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Somchai’s brother-in-law, who was removed in a 2006 military coup.
Tear gas was “absolutely necessary”, says general
The police moved in Tuesday morning to break up a siege and tear down barricades erected overnight by PAD supporters. The protesters retreated as unarmed police with shields and face masks tore down barbed-wire barricades on Sukhothai and Rachavithi roads, clearing the way to allow lawmakers and Somchai to enter parliament.
Thai media reported that the country’s Queen Sikrit donated 100,000 baht (US$2,900) to cover the medical expenses of the injured.
The protesters were attempting to block Somchai from giving his maiden speech – a constitutional requirement for his government to start work.
Somchai ordered police to clear the way into parliament for the scheduled policy debate.
“It was absolutely necessary for police to use tear gas to break up the crowd,” Major General Anan Srihiran told Reuters. “We only wanted to open up a road for the cabinet to enter parliament. We will not do anything else to the protesters for the rest of the day.”
An AFP correspondent on the scene reported that police fired fresh rounds of tear gas on about 600 protesters that had regrouped by the Royal Plaza near parliament, hours after the first crackdown.
“The government has crossed a line of decency”
The police offensive has been sharply criticised by many in the country. The opposition Democrat Party decided to boycott this morning’s parliamentary session in protest.
“This is an overreaction using excessive force,” Democrat Party spokesman Burjana Smutharaks told AFP. “The government must take responsibility.”
The house speaker opened the special session of Parliament despite the boycott, and Somchai ploughed ahead with his speech despite attempts by PAD supporters to drown him out with loudspeakers.
Little prospect of compromise
Somchai called for national reconciliation to end Thailand’s three-year political crisis, a deeply entrenched conflict between Thaksin’s supporters among the rural poor and his rivals in the royalist and military establishment.
No real talks have started, and there seems little prospect of compromise with the PAD, which says it is acting to defend the monarchy.
According to analysts, the street campaign has hurt investor confidence in Thailand and distracted policymakers at a time when they should be focused on the fallout from the global credit crisis and slowing demand for exports.