BANGKOK (Reuters) - Protesters trying to overthrow Thailand’s government attacked Bangkok’s police headquarters on Friday as demonstrations against Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej spread from the capital, disrupting air and rail services.
Police fired what appeared to be teargas at the 2,000-strong crowd, part of escalating protests that have raised fears of major violence and military intervention less than two years after a coup in September 2006.
Protesters also forced airports to close in the tourist destinations of Phuket and Krabi and the southern town of Hat Yai, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded.
Striking rail workers halted 30 percent of services nationwide, and unionized airline and port workers were urged by their leaders to take sick leave.
In Bangkok, where protesters have occupied the prime minister’s compound since Tuesday, some of Samak’s advisers pushed him to impose emergency rule, two government sources said.
“It has been proposed as an option to him,” said one source, who declined to be named.
But Samak, who leads a coalition government elected in December, declined to get tough with the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which began its protest campaign on May 25.
“I have several tools at my disposal, but I am not using any of them because I want to keep things calm,” he told reporters after meeting top military and police officers.
“I will not quit. If you want me out, do it by law, not by force. This is embarrassing in front of the world,” Samak said.
Imposing a state of emergency would allow the government to deploy soldiers to disperse the protesters, although army chief Anupong Paochinda said the situation did not warrant it.
“A coup would not solve anything. It will hurt the country’s image and worsen the country’s situation,” he said, nearly two years after the coup that removed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra but failed to heal the divisions in Thai society.
Thai shares have fallen 23 percent since the street campaign began in May amid fears of everything from policy paralysis at a time of stuttering economic growth to bloodshed on the streets.
The PAD assault on police headquarters came hours after riot officers tried to deliver an eviction order and clashed with demonstrators barricaded inside the PM’s compound.
“We are trying to deal with the protesters as gently as possible,” police spokesman Surapol Thuanthong told reporters.
After the scuffles, the Civil Court said it had retracted its eviction order while the PAD appealed against the ruling.
The PAD, a motley group of businessmen, academics and activists whose 2005 protests against Thaksin contributed to the coup against him, accuses Samak of being an illegitimate proxy of Thaksin, now in exile in London. Samak denies the accusation.
“Today is the Judgment Day. It is the People’s Revolution and we must win,” said PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul after violent raids on government offices and a state TV station on Monday.
Sondhi is one of nine PAD leaders charged with insurrection, a crime that can carry the death penalty.
The PAD also proclaims itself to be a defender of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej against a supposed Thaksin plan to turn Thailand into a republic — a charge vehemently denied by both Thaksin and the government.
The protesters have barricaded themselves in the 11-acre compound behind razor wire and car tires. Sentries armed with bars and golf clubs poured a mixture of gasoline and shampoo across the road, turning it into an ice-rink.
At the barricades, PAD supporters held aloft pictures of King Bhumibol, shouting “We love the King. We love Thailand”. Inside the compound, thousands sat on plastic sheeting, clapping and cheering speeches by the group’s leaders.
Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan; Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Alan Raybould and Paul Tait