BANGKOK -- Gunmen shot and wounded a top leader of a major pro-government movement in northern Thailand on Wednesday, as demonstrators pushing to overthrow the prime minister defied the start of a state of emergency imposed in the capital to cope with the nation's increasingly bloody political crisis.
Kwanchai Praipana was shot twice and hospitalized after gunmen in a pickup truck sprayed bursts of gunfire at his home in Udon Thani, according to another leader of the group, Jutaporn Promphan.
The government announced the state of emergency late Tuesday in the wake of a string of attacks that have mostly been aimed at demonstrators protesting peacefully in Bangkok. Grenade assaults on Friday and Sunday killed one man and wounded more than 60 people, bringing the casualty toll since November to at least nine dead and more than 550 hurt.
The government said it enacted the emergency decree to improve security and ensure that Feb. 2 elections, opposed by protesters, are held without disruption. Officials made clear there would be no crackdown on demonstrators who have seized several patches of the capital, and life in the city continued as normal with tourist sites unaffected and no major deployment of extra security forces.
The emergency decree, which will remain in effect for 60 days, gives police expanded powers to make arrests, conduct searches and seize suspicious materials.
The powerful army commander, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, said “we will have to see” whether it helps ease the violence.
The protesters have refused to negotiate with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, but Prayuth urged both sides to talk, saying, “we must stop this conflict to let the country move forward.”
“I'm in favor of discussion. No one takes all or loses all. No one wins all or loses all, so we have to find a way,” he said. “Whenever the conflict has gone to the point that it is not fixable, the soldiers have to fix it.”
Thailand's military has staged 11 successful coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Prayuth has repeatedly said he does not want the army to intervene, but has pointedly refused to rule out a coup.
The protesters have blocked major streets and marched on government offices in a bid to shut down the capital and force Yingluck's resignation to make way for an appointed government to implement reforms to fight corruption, which they say must be implemented before any vote. The opposition Democrat Party, closely aligned with the protesters, is boycotting the polls.
The protesters charge that Yingluck's government is carrying on the practices of Thaksin Shinawatra, her billionaire brother who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, by using the family fortune and state funds to influence voters and cement its power. Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006 after protests accused him of corruption and abuse of power. He fled into exile in 2008 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a conflict of interest conviction.
The unrest has cast doubt over whether the February elections, which Yingluck called to quell the crisis, will be held.
On Wednesday, the Election Commission asked the Constitutional Court to issue a ruling on whether and how the ballot can be delayed.
Charupong Ruangsuwan, the caretaker interior minister, said the vote should go ahead and the Election Commission should not use the state of emergency as a reason to postpone it.
“They can use any excuses they want, but their duty is to hold the election,” he said. “They may accuse the government of causing problems, but the government doesn't have any problems.”
The government says it imposed the emergency decree in part to secure the city and because protesters have tried to shut down government offices and prevent civil servants from working.
The move emboldened the demonstrators, however. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban vowed late Tuesday to continue demonstrating and questioned whether the declaration was justified, saying the protesters had been peaceful.
Deputy army spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree said the military would support the government and supply forces as needed.