Thailand extends state of emergency
The prime minister of Thailand extended a state of emergency Friday and pledged to launch an investigation into the assassination attempt on a prominent protest leader that occurred here earlier in the day.
The early-morning ambush of media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, founder of the movement that toppled the previous government, could dash hopes that Thailand will return to normal soon in the wake of violent street battles Monday that left at least two dead and as many as 100 wounded.
“We will continue applying the state of emergency, but for as short a period as possible, in order to restore peace and normalcy in Bangkok and its vicinities,” Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a televised address.
Gunmen in a pickup truck without a license plate opened fire on Sondhi’s vehicle with automatic weapons about 5 a.m. as he was heading to work to host a television program. Jinttana Damrong, 56, a food vendor, was setting up her stall when the brazen attack took place.
“I went out to prepare food as usual. Suddenly, I heard the sound of a car speed up and then they started shooting. It was like an action movie -- they kept shooting nonstop. I told my son to hide, then I ran to hide.”
Maj. Gen. King Kwangvisetchaichai said the assailants first aimed to shoot out the car’s tires before riddling it with as many as 100 bullets. Sondhi, who founded the protest movement known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, or PAD, was shot in the shoulder and had a bullet surgically removed from his skull, according to reports.
Sondhi’s secretary and driver were also injured. Sondhi has been moved from Vajira Hospital to an undisclosed facility under police protection.
Police say they recovered 84 bullet casings from AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles. A dud M-79 shell was also found, according to local media.
“I have already ordered authorities to check how it is that war weapons emerged and were used in the capital,” Abhisit said in his address.
Battlefield weapons were seen across downtown Bangkok on Monday as government troops dislodged red-shirted anti-government forces from sites they occupied around the capital, including their last redoubt at Government House, the office of the prime minister.
The street battles capped a week of violent protests in which the “red shirts” -- supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra -- stormed a key regional summit, forcing its cancellation and the airlift evacuation of several Southeast Asian leaders. About 3,000 remaining protesters surrendered to the government Tuesday morning even as some of the movement’s chiefs vowed to intensify their struggle from underground.
Thaksin-aligned lawmaker Worawut Ua-apinyakul was quoted in the local press Thursday as saying that the protesters would unleash a “covert struggle.”
Sondhi’s PAD movement has been instrumental in toppling two Thaksin-aligned governments, most recently in late 2008 when his “yellow shirts” overran Bangkok’s two international airports. One of the demands of the red shirts, in addition to the resignation of Abhisit, has been the prosecution of the ringleaders of the airport seizures. Sondhi and Thaksin are former business partners and, according to reports, onetime friends.
Thaksin, a billionaire telecom tycoon who is in hiding after being sentenced to jail on corruption charges, has given a spate of interviews in international media in recent days. He has called for a “people’s revolution” to overthrow the Abhisit government and has also promised to return to Thailand.
According to a report Tuesday by analyst Shawn Crispin, “operatives had for the past two years funneled arms through Cambodia to Thaksin-aligned supporters in the country’s northeastern provinces, where his grass-roots support runs strongest.”
PAD has thus far remained silent in the escalating political crisis.
“As far as I know, at this time we won’t move yet. The leaders have said we will move when it is the right time,” said Pattama Deemee, a 48-year-old Bangkok business owner and PAD supporter. “In my opinion this is the beginning of underground activity meant to make us feel unsafe. This is a hard game for Abhisit and the Thai people. We will never know what will happen next.”
McDermid and Kaewsangthong are special correspondents