BANGKOK: Thailand's government on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas to cope with protests that have stirred up violent attacks, adding to the country's months-long sense of crisis.
Labor Minister Chalerm Yubumrung announced that the measure will continue for 60 days. He did not announce any specific actions.
The decree greatly expands the power of security forces to issue orders and search, arrest and detain people, with limited judicial and parliamentary oversight. The areas covered had already been placed under tougher-than-normal security under the country's Internal Security Act.
The state of emergency follows increasing attacks at protest sites for which the government and the protesters blame each other. These include grenades thrown in daylight and drive-by shootings. On Sunday, 28 people were wounded when two grenades were tossed at one of several protest sites set up at key Bangkok intersections.
Another grenade attack on a protest march last Friday killed one man and wounded dozens. No arrests have been made in either attack. Nine people have been killed and hundreds hurt in violence since the protests began in early November. The protesters escalated their tactics this month with a threat to "shut down" the capital to prevent the government from functioning.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said she has emphasized that every officer in a newly established emergency center under the decree "must work with patience and exercise caution."
"We have repeated that we will take care of the situation according to international practices, which is something we have always said. Primarily, we have to use the principle of negotiation first," she said.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, in a speech to followers, questioned whether the declaration was justified, saying the demonstrators had been peaceful.
"Is it right for them to use the emergency decree to declare a state of emergency to come and deal with us? Come and get us," he declared to an enthusiastic crowd of hundreds at a park in downtown Bangkok. Thousands more are encamped at other locations in the capital.
The protesters have been demanding Yingluck's resignation to make way for an appointed government to implement reforms to fight corruption. Yingluck called elections for Feb. 2 but the protesters are insisting they not be held.
The opposition Democrat Party, closely aligned with the protesters, is boycotting the polls.
The announcement of the emergency decree said the elections would proceed as planned. But the state Election Commission has repeatedly urged that the polls be postponed, and it is hard to say if they can be held in strongholds of the protest movement in southern Thailand.
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 street 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.
Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said that in the view of security officials, "the protesters have constantly violated the law, especially in closing down government offices and banks and harassment against civil servants to prevent them from working."
He added that Suthep's group "had gone overboard, and attacks were carried out by ill-intentioned people, causing people to be injured and killed, affecting the country's stability."
As many as 200,000 people have joined the biggest of the opposition protests in the past two months. The demonstrators are mainly middle class, and are generally backed by big business and the financial elite. They include a large contingent of people from southern Thailand, a stronghold of the Democrat Party.
Thaksin and his political allies have easily won every national election since 2001, with Yingluck's Pheu Thai party winning a majority of lower house seats in 2011.
Pro-Thaksin "Red Shirt" activists staged their own disruptive protests in Bangkok in 2010 against a Democrat-led government. Thaksin draws support from the lower and lower middle classes, mostly rural people who benefited from his populist policies, including virtually free health care.
The emergency decree was last used during the 2010 unrest, when Suthep was deputy prime minister in the Democrat government and headed the agency overseeing its application. The Red Shirt protesters were assisted by a small, shadowy armed militia, and at least 90 people, mostly protesters, died in violence which peaked when soldiers in combat gear swept demonstrators from the streets. Suthep has been charged with murder for his role in the crackdown.
There are fears the current protesters are trying to incite violence to prompt the military to intervene, and Yingluck has dealt softly with demonstrators in a bid to keep the situation calm.
The powerful army commander, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has repeatedly said he does not want his forces drawn into the conflict, but has also refused to rule out the possibility of a military takeover.
"The military will support the government's working by providing our force as it is needed," deputy army spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree said after the decree was announced.
Since Yingluck took office, she has walked a careful tightrope with the army and her opponents that succeeded in maintaining political calm. The trigger for the latest protests was an ill-advised attempt late last year by ruling party lawmakers to push through a bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return from overseas exile.
Since then, demonstrators have steadily escalated their pressure, attacking Yingluck's office at government house and the city's police headquarters for several days in December with slingshots and homemade rocket launchers, and periodically occupying the compounds of several government agencies.