Anti-government protester gunned down in Thailand
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An anti-government protester was killed and several others wounded in the Thai capital Bangkok on Saturday after an unidentified gunman opened fire at an opposition rally.
It is the latest indicator that widespread protests aimed at toppling the administration of embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra are becoming increasingly violent.
Just 48 hours earlier, clashes between police about 500 protesters, who are determined to disrupt a snap February 2 election called by Yingluck, saw two people killed and scores wounded outside a voting registration centre.
The long-running dispute between Thailand’s bitterly divided political factions flared anew in November after Yingluck’s elected government tried to introduce an amnesty for her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to enable him to return to Thailand and escape a jail term for corruption.
Yingluck called early elections as a way of defusing the crisis, but the protesters are demanding she resign and hand power over to an unelected council to carry out reforms.
Saturday’s attack took place close to a protest camp in the city centre at around 3:30 a.m., according to the government-run Erawan Medical Center.
A witness told Reuters the shots could have come from a car as it drove past the protest site.
“I was sleeping and then I heard several gunshots. I was surprised,” said one 18-year-old protester, who would not identify himself.
Protesters block candidate registration
Earlier on Saturday, candidate registration for the upcoming polls continued across Thailand.
But in four southern provinces, the process was stopped because protesters blocked the venues and local election officials wanted to avoid violence, said Puchong Nutrawong, secretary general of the election commission. Registration continued in a fifth province – Surat Thani – despite protests there, he said.
“Our policy is to avoid any confrontation,” Puchong said.
On Thursday, protesters had tried to overrun a Bangkok sports stadium where election candidates were gathering to draw lots for their positions on ballots. Masked protesters fired rocks from slingshots as they tried to break into the building to halt the process, while police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Two people, including a police officer, were shot dead.
Despite the violence, Yingluck – who draws her support from the populous voter base among the rural poor in the north and northeast – has remained determined to go ahead with the elections.
Any delay to a poll that Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party would otherwise be expected to win would leave her government open to legal challenges or, worse still, military or judicial intervention.
Military refuses to rule out coup
On Friday, her government asked the military for help to provide security for both candidates and voters.
However, the chief of the heavily politicised military General Prayuth Chan-ocha refused to rule out military intervention, responding that “the door was neither open nor closed” when asked if a coup was possible.
Thailand’s military has staged or attempted 18 coups in 81 years of democracy, making the general’s comments more chilling for Yingluck and Thaksin, who was toppled in a 2006 coup.
The protesters draw strength from Bangkok’s conservative middle classes and elite, many with ties to the judiciary and military, who resent the rise of the billionaire Shinawatra family and their political juggernaut.
They accuse them of manipulating Thailand’s fragile democracy by effectively buying the support of the rural poor with populist policies such as cheap healthcare, easy credit and subsidies for rice farmers.
Instead of an election, the protesters want an appointed “people’s council” to oversee reforms before any future vote.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)