Gunbattles broke out as hundreds of riot police made their strongest attempt to clear anti-government protest sites around the Thai capital Bangkok yesterday, leaving four people dead and 64 others injured.
Multiple gunshots were heard near prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s offices, where riot police had started to remove protesters and dismantle a makeshift stage. Witnesses said a grenade was thrown at police and shots were fired by both sides. The police then withdrew.
In another blow for Ms Shinawatra, the state anti-corruption agency yesterday accused her of improperly handling a rice subsidy scheme, putting her in jeopardy of being impeached.
The National Anti-Corruption Commission said her government proceeded with the scheme despite expert advice that it was potentially wasteful and prone to corruption. The government has been months late in making payments to farmers for the rice they pledged to sell at above-market prices.
The commission said Ms Shinawatra has been called to hear the charges on 27 February. If it submits the case to the senate for possible impeachment, she will be suspended from official duties pending a senate trial.
Her elected government has been attempting to avoid violence to keep the powerful military from stepping in. Thailand has been racked by political unrest since 2006, when Ms Shinawatra’s brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted, accused of corruption. Since then, his supporters and opponents have vied for power.
Emergency medical services said three civilians and a police officer died and 64 others were injured in yesterday’s clashes, including journalists covering the protests for a Hong Kong TV station and a Spanish news agency.
The violence erupted after police moved into several locations around the city to detain and remove protesters who have been camped out for weeks to press for Ms Shinawatra’s resignation.
They want the formation of an unelected people’s council to implement reforms to end corruption and remove the Shinawatra family from politics.
They have blocked access to government offices since late last year and occupied key intersections around Bangkok for about a month. Until now, the police had refrained from dispersing them for fear of unleashing violence. But on Monday, the government’s special security command centre announced it would reclaim five protest sites for public use, under a state of emergency declared in January.
Thousands of police, including armed anti-riot squads, were deployed on Tuesday in operation “Peace for Bangkok”.
Earlier on, 144 protesters near the energy ministry in the north of the city were detained and herded on to police lorries to be taken away for questioning.
Transport minister Chadchart Sittipunt said the protesters hijacked two buses and used them to block a rally site near the Grand Palace.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said in his nightly speech to followers that they should today go to harass Ms Shinawatra at her temporary office at the defence ministry.
He said: “We will pursue her everywhere, anywhere, anytime, all the time. We are on a mission to follow and chase Yingluck the murderer out of this country. It is time to run this she-devil out of our native land!” The clashes came a day before the civil court is to rule on the government’s invocation of the emergency decree, which allows authorities to exercise wide powers to detain protesters and hold them in custody for 30 days without charges.
If the decree is struck down by the court, the government will be forced to dismantle the special security command centre it had set up to enforce the emergency measures.
The ongoing rice scandal has created tumult in state banks, from which the government is seeking loans to pay off money owed to farmers.
A deal to have the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Co-operatives borrow up to 20 billion baht (£374 million) from the government Savings Bank was scuttled after a run on deposits by people sympathetic to the anti-government cause.
Since the protests began in November, at least 15 people have been killed and hundreds injured.