Last updated: January 26, 2014 11:31 am

Senior Thai protest leader killed in clashes

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Anti-government protesters block the entrance to a polling station in Bangkok©Reuters

A Thai anti-government movement leader was shot dead in Bangkok and fights broke out elsewhere in the city on Sunday, as protesters sabotaged early voting in the February 2 general election that is already sliding into chaos.

Suthin Tharatin, a faction chief in the opposition’s two-week old blockade of main roads in the capital, was killed in clashes that laid the depth of the political crisis in southeast Asia’s second-largest economy bare.

The violence will further stoke fears about the coming flashpoint week, which pits an opposition determined to derail the February 2 election against government loyalists who will be enraged if the poll is scrapped or the ruling Puea Thai party ousted by the military or the courts.

Mr Suthin was killed and at least 11 others wounded by unknown assailants in clashes between government opponents and supporters in southeast Bangkok, officials said. The opposition People’s Democratic Reform Committee blamed the government for allowing “thugs” to carry out the killing, which comes days after a senior government loyalist was shot and wounded in an apparent assassination attempt in north-eastern Thailand.

Other skirmishes between rival political groups broke out as anti-government activists waving Thai flags picketed and padlocked polling stations in Bangkok and south Thailand, on a day when just over 2m of roughly 49m eligible voters were due to cast their ballots. Protesters – who want to hand control of the country to an unelected ruling council – forced more than one-third of the 152 early voting stations nationwide to close, authorities said.

Voting in pro-government areas such as north Thailand took place as normal, election officials said, highlighting the country’s fundamental geographic and social divisions.

Police mostly hung back from confronting the protesters, as part of a broader government strategy of not provoking violence and thus perhaps a coup by a military seen as sympathetic to the opposition. The government last week imposed a state of emergency giving it wide-ranging authority to crack down on protests in and around Bangkok, but it has said it will not use most of the powers.

The PDRC said it did not instigate the polling station protests, although its leaders have repeatedly called for the election to be disrupted because they say the government has destroyed the political system through corruption and cronyism.

“Most polling stations were surrounded by people without the presence of PDRC leaders,” said Akanat Promphan, PDRC spokesman. “We encourage people to protest against election without reform – and campaign for reform before election.”

But critics say the polling station disruption undermined the opposition’s claim to be peaceful and democratic, showing instead that it is prepared to intimidate Thai voters rather than contesting a poll it fears will extend its near 20-year election losing streak.

“Major blunder by #PDRC protesters 2day by blocking advance polling stations,” tweeted Pravit Rojanaphruk, a leading Thai columnist, before news of the shooting of Mr Suthin emerged. “Legitimacy in eyes of int’l community plunged further.”

Surapong Tovichakchaikul, foreign minister and a deputy prime minister, accused protesters of using force to commit the “serious offence” of preventing people voting.

Thailand’s political crisis is a flaring of a more than seven year old power struggle between supporters and opponents of Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-exiled former prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 military coup after building a formidable election machine by pumping money into schemes such as cheap healthcare and rice subsidies. His government was also implicated in serious graft and human rights abuses, including the deaths of more than 2,000 people in a 2003 so-called war on drugs.

The government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Mr Thaksin’s sister, sparked the current turmoil when it tried and failed in 2013 to force through an amnesty bill that would have annulled a corruption conviction against Mr Thaksin and allowed other senior politicians from both sides to escape prosecution on charges ranging from graft to murder. While the amnesty law sparked protests across the political spectrum, the subsequent opposition campaign to suspend parliamentary rule enjoys less broad support, with demonstrator numbers dwindling since the PDRC began blockading main roads and government buildings in Bangkok two weeks ago.

Political tensions are likely to escalate again around planned nationwide rallies on Wednesday by pro-Thaksin “red shirts”, some of whom are growing increasingly frustrated at the government’s general restraint towards protesters whose tactics have included occupying the finance ministry and shutting down other state agencies.

Ms Yingluck is due to hold talks on Tuesday with the national election commission, which wants to postpone the poll for three months – but is distrusted by many government supporters, who see it as biased towards the opposition. The prime minister offered this month to hold talks with opposition leaders on postponing the election, but pressed ahead with the poll after they rebuffed her.

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