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January 19, 2014 11:48 am
Two blasts wounded at least 28 people at an anti-government protest camp in central Bangkok on Sunday as a dangerous street showdown between political factions moved into its second week.
Police said the explosions were caused by fragmentation grenades thrown at Victory Monument, one of the many sites in the heart of the capital blockaded by demonstrators since Monday as part of a “shutdown” of the city.
While most parts of Bangkok remain physically untouched by the protests and the political crisis, violent incidents have stoked fears of bloodshed ahead of elections due in southeast Asia’s second-largest economy in a fortnight.
Seven people at Victory Monument were seriously injured, medical officials said, in an incident that comes after a similar attack on a protest march on Friday killed one and wounded dozens. Another man was seriously hurt late on Saturday night after a gunman opened fire in the city’s Ladprao district, near one of several road junctions where demonstrators are rallying to oust Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister, and hand over power to an unelected ruling council.
Claims and counter-claims over responsibility for the Friday and Sunday bombings have swirled around the Thai capital, with proper investigation made hard by both the politically charged atmosphere and the withdrawal of police from protest areas to avoid provoking confrontation. While one obvious possibility is that the attacks were carried out by government loyalists, critics of the protesters say their inability to topple Ms Yingluck through weight of numbers means they have an interest in creating a climate of violence to trigger a military coup.
Thailand’s military chief called for both sides to negotiate an end to the conflict, which is the latest flare-up of a seven-year power struggle between supporters and opponents of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister. Mr Thaksin has been in self-imposed exile since 2008 because of a corruption conviction he says is politically motivated, but he is seen as the driving force in the government of Ms Yingluck, his younger sister.
“Now all of us need to help each other in taking care of our own nation,” said Thanasak Patimapakorn, supreme armed forces commander, after a parade on Saturday to mark national Army Day. “I myself respect the law and I respect all sides – and I request that all sides should come together and talk to find a solution.”
Suthep Thaugsuban, the political establishment insider turned firebrand protest leader, called for demonstrators to press on with their efforts to choke off the government by surrounding ministries and official agencies. His 10-week campaign has included occupations of government buildings and threats, including a warning last week that Ms Yingluck and fellow ministers could be captured if they did not step down.
“Please, my fellow countrymen, please rise up and do our job, which is to stop this wicked government from functioning,” Mr Suthep said in a speech on Saturday, as he tried to counter a fall in protester numbers since his push began.
Mr Suthep’s movement has harnessed anger at corruption and abuses of power during the 12 years Mr Thaksin and his allies have dominated politics, but the government still retains support in rural areas thanks to popular schemes such as cheap healthcare and rice farming subsidies. Critics of Mr Suthep and the main opposition Democratic party see their decision to boycott elections due on February 2 and take to the streets instead as based on a cynical calculation that they will lose at the polls.
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