BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai riot police clashed with protesters in the capital on Tuesday, injuring 69 people, as campaigners intensified their four-month bid to unseat the government.
Some protesters were badly hurt, including two men who had part of their legs blown off by exploding teargas canisters when police cleared a path through the crowd barricaded outside parliament since late Monday.
As the 5,000 protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) regrouped and chanted slogans through massive sound systems, other demonstrators battled police at Bangkok’s police headquarters.
Riot police fired volleys of teargas and lobbed stun grenades at the crowd, who hurled back stones and firecrackers.
At one point, a city sewage truck drove past the building, spewing sewage at the entrance to the police HQ.
“Overthrow the Thaksin regime. Together we win or lose, we will know it today. We won’t give up,” PAD leader Anchalee Paireerak said.
The PAD, a coalition of businessmen, academics and activists, accuses new Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat of being a political proxy for former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, his brother-in-law, who was removed in a 2006 military coup.
The group argues Thai democracy has been undermined by billionaire Thaksin and his allies, who easily won the last three elections, and has called for a “new politics” that would include a proportion of appointed MPs.
Somchai, a soft-spoken former judge, has proved a harder target for the PAD than his predecessor, the abrasive Samak Sundaravej, who stepped down last month after being found guilty of a conflict of interest.
The demonstrators failed to stop Somchai making his maiden policy speech, in which he called for national reconciliation to end a three-year political crisis pitting Thaksin and his rural base against rivals in the royalist and military establishment believed to be backing the PAD.
“This government is determined to tackle economic problems and to listen to all sides to find a solution to end the crisis,” Somchai told parliament.
He slipped out through a back gate later to avoid protesters and sped away in his motorcade, a parliamentary official said.
The street campaign has hurt investor confidence in Thailand and distracted policymakers when they should be focused on slowing demand for exports and the fallout from the global credit crisis, analysts say.
Traders, citing the unrest, said the dollar advanced against the Thai baht and the stock market tumbled, although in both cases the global credit crisis was also a major factor.
Similar street violence last month triggered a two-week state of emergency in Bangkok, but the army refused to enforce it and the measure was withdrawn after badly damaging tourism.
“I don’t think they will impose it this time,” Ramkhamhaeng University analyst Boonyakiat Karavekphan said. “The previous emergency decree proved to be futile.”
Outside parliament, a phalanx of riot police seven-deep faced the thousands of PAD supporters, many of them wearing masks and swimming goggles in case of another tear gas attack.
The PAD has occupied the prime minister’s offices at Government House since late August, forcing Somchai to run the country from Bangkok’s little-used Don Muang airport.
Somchai has tried to open a dialogue with the PAD but no real talks have started and there seems little prospect of compromise with the PAD, which says it is acting to protect the monarchy.
The PAD’s main draw card has been defense of the monarchy and 80-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, regarded as semi-divine by many Thais, in the face of what they say is a bid by the Thaksin camp to turn Thailand into a republic.
The accusation is denied by Thaksin, who lives in exile in England after he and his wife fled in August to avoid graft charges, saying they could not get a fair trial.
Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Alan Raybould and Jerry Norton