BANGKOK – Police in Thailand on Sunday fought off mobs of rock-throwing protesters armed with petrol bombs who tried to battle their way into the government’s sand-bagged headquarters, as gunshots rang out in Bangkok and the prime minister fled a police complex during the sharpest escalation yet of the crisis.
The protests, aimed at toppling Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration, have raised renewed fears of prolonged instability in one of Southeast Asia’s biggest economies.
Sunday marked the first time police have used force since demonstrations began in earnest a week ago — a risky strategy that many fear could trigger more bloodshed.
At least four people have been killed and 53 wounded in skirmishes so far, according to according to police and the state’s emergency medical services.
Most of the casualties occurred at a Bangkok stadium where shooting was heard Sunday for the second day and the body of one protester shot in the chest lay face-up on the ground.
Yingluck spent the morning in meetings at a Bangkok police complex but evacuated to an undisclosed location and canceled an interview with reporters after more than a hundred protesters attempted to break into the compound, according to her secretary, Wim Rungwattanajinda.
Several demonstrators interviewed by The Associated Press, however, were unaware Yingluck was inside. Those who made it a few steps into the vast complex stayed only a few minutes, and Wim said they did not get anywhere near the heavily protected building where Yingluck was located.
The unrest forced Bangkok’s biggest and glitziest shopping malls to close in the heart of the city and snarled traffic. Mobs also besieged at least three television stations demanding they broadcast the protesters’ views and not the government’s. One of those TV stations is government run, the other is owned by the military and the third is independent.
Political instability has plagued Thailand since the military ousted Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, in a coup in 2006. Two years later, anti-Thaksin demonstrators occupied Bangkok’s two airports for a week after taking over the prime minister’s office for three months, and in 2010 pro-Thaksin protesters occupied downtown Bangkok for weeks in a standoff that ended with parts of the city in flames and more than 90 dead.
Any further deterioration is likely to scare away investors as well as tourists who come to Thailand by the millions and contribute 10 percent to the $602 billion economy, Southeast Asia’s second-largest after Indonesia. It is also likely to undermine Thailand’s democracy, which had built up in fits and starts interrupted by coups.
Thailand’s latest unrest began last month after an ill-advised bid by Yingluck’s ruling Pheu Thai party to push an amnesty law through parliament that would have allowed the return of her self-exiled brother, who was overthrown after being accused of corruption and abuse of power.
The bill failed to pass after the upper house of parliament voted against it. But the victory emboldened the protesters, who accuse Yingluck of being her brother’s puppet.
The demonstrators, who mainly support the opposition Democrat Party, want to replace Yingluck’s elected government with an unelected “people’s council” but have been vague about what that means.
Some of Sunday’s most dramatic scenes played out in front of Government House, where more than 1,000 protesters armed with petrol bombs and rocks skirmished with riot police who fired rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas over heavily fortified barricades. At one point, a truck pulled up and tied a green rope to a concrete barrier and tried to drag it away. A few kilometers away, police drove back another crowd of protesters at the Bangkok police bureau.
“We’re all brothers and sisters,” police shouted through a loudspeaker before firing tear gas. “Please don’t try to come in!”
The initial burst of tear gas dispersed the mob, but they regrouped and heckled police from a distance. One Associated Press cameraman filming the mayhem was hit in the hand by a rock and the leg by a rubber bullet.
The protests, the largest protests the country has seen since 2010, began in November and drew 100,000 people to a rally one week ago.
Until this weekend, they have largely been peaceful. But tensions rose Saturday night after pro- and anti-government groups clashed in a northeastern Bangkok neighborhood and unidentified gunmen shot and killed two people. At least 45 people were injured.
Gunshots were fired in the same area early Sunday, but it was not clear who was responsible or targeted, said police Col. Narongrit Promsawat. The violence occurred near a stadium holding a large pro-government rally.
At least some of Sunday’s gunshots appeared to have been fired into the nearby Ramkhamhaeng University, according to its rector, Wutthisak Larpcharoensap.
Police called for calm on television, saying they were helping to escort both sides out of the area safely. Organizers of the pro-government “Red Shirt” rally at the stadium called off the event for safety reasons and sent people home Sunday, after many spent the night camped inside.
During the past week, the protesters had seized the Finance Ministry, turned off power at police headquarters, camped at a sprawling government office complex and briefly broken into the army headquarters compound to urge the military to support them.
Police and authorities have gone to painstaking lengths to avoid using force. But they appeared to have drawn a red line at Government House, and on Sunday fought back for the first time, both there and at the headquarters of Bangkok city police.
Army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha — who said last week the army would not take sides — urged the police not to use force and also called on protesters to avert violence, according to Lt. Col. Winthai Suvaree, an army spokesman.
Most of the protesters are middle-class Bangkok residents who have been part of the anti-Thaksin movement for several years and people brought in from the Democrat Party strongholds in the southern provinces.
Because Yingluck’s party has overwhelming electoral support from the country’s rural majority, which benefited from Thaksin’s populist programs, the protesters want to change the country’s political system to a less democratic one where the educated and well-connected would have a greater say than directly elected lawmakers.
Thaksin lives in Dubai to avoid a two-year jail term for a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated.