BANGKOK: A Thai anti-government protest leader was shot and killed in Bangkok Sunday when violence erupted as demonstrators blocked early voting in many areas of the capital ahead of disputed elections next week. It brings the death toll to 10, with scores wounded, since protesters took to the streets in November, vowing to shut down the capital and force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office.
A spokesman for the national police, Piya Utayo, identified the dead man as Suthin Tharatin, one of the protest leaders.
“Suthin was shot in the head and in the chest,” he said.
Yingluck called the Feb. 2 elections, hoping to cement her hold on power but the protests have continued and the Election Commission has been pushing to delay the vote.
In a clear setback for Yingluck, a senior government official said as many as 45 of the 50 polling stations set up in Bangkok for advanced voting had been shut because of anti-government protesters.
Bangkok police said clashes had broken out between anti-government protesters and Yingluck supporters, with the two sides trading punches before shots were fired. The Erawan Medical Center, which monitors Bangkok hospitals, said 11 people were hurt in the clashes in the Bang Na district.
It was not immediately clear who had fired the shots, but the protesters accused the government and police of trying to intimidate them.
“The government has allowed thugs to use weapons,” said Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for the protesters. Private gun ownership is widespread in the country.
The violence, the worst in a month, came after a state of emergency took effect Wednesday and adds to doubts over whether the Feb. 2 elections can go ahead.
Chris Baker, a historian and Bangkok-based analyst, said the violence added pressure on Yingluck to delay the vote.
“It does weaken the government’s position. The protesters will blame this on the government,” said Baker. “With or without this incident the likelihood for violence was there already. I don’t think it changes in the trajectory.”
The protests are the latest eruption in a political conflict that has gripped Thailand for eight years and which is starting to hurt growth and investor confidence in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.
The conflict broadly pits Bangkok’s middle class and elite, and followers in the south, against mainly poor rural backers of Yingluck and her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, in the populous north and northeast.
The protests mark the biggest demonstrations since deadly political unrest in April-May 2010, when Thaksin’s “red-shirt” supporters paralyzed Bangkok to remove a government led by the Democrat Party, now in opposition. More than 90 people were killed and more than 2,000 were injured in that unrest.
The protesters, led by firebrand former Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, accuse Yingluck of being Thaksin’s puppet and want an unelected “people’s council” to oversee reform before any future elections are held.
A government minister said Saturday that Yingluck was prepared to discuss canceling the Feb. 2 elections if the activists ended their protests.
Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, also a deputy prime minister, said in a televised address that the blocking of advance voting was “a serious offense,” adding that protesters had used force to prevent people voting.
Yingluck’s government had already warned anyone who tried to stop voting would be jailed or fined.
City officials said they had begun negotiating with the protesters.
“We have to negotiate with them and let them know that blocking the election is illegal,” said Bangkok district official Luckana Rojjanawong.
The elections were already in doubt after a Constitutional Court ruling Friday that opened the possibility of a delay.
The Election Commission is seeking the delay, arguing that the current environment is too unsettled.
The protesters say Thaksin’s powerful political machine has subverted Thailand’s fragile democracy by effectively buying the support of rural voters with populist policies such as cheap healthcare and subsidies for rice farmers.
Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in northern Chiang Mai, said before the violence began that the disruption of advance polling would add impetus to the calls for an election delay.
“The ability of those against advance voting to keep it from happening today could signal what may come next week – a decision to delay the vote due to an inability to hold the elections properly,” Chambers said.