Thai Prime Minister Yingluck flees to northern stronghold of Chiang Rai

Sharp rise in Thai political violence appears to have opened a new chapter

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 3:50pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 February, 2014, 1:37am

Gunmen opened fire near several opposition protest sites in Bangkok yesterday, stoking tensions in the capital as Thailand's embattled prime minister flew to her political stronghold in the north.

A dangerous new chapter appears to have been opened in a nearly four-month political crisis that has left 22 people dead and hundreds wounded, with almost daily reports of gunshots and grenade blasts in the capital, often targeting protesters.

Police said unknown gunmen fired sporadically early yesterday for about an hour in three areas of Bangkok where demonstrators are camped out alongside upmarket shopping malls and luxury hotels. Nobody was wounded.

"We don't know which side fired the shots, but the aim of the gunmen is to intimidate," deputy national police spokesman Anucha Romyanan said.

The sharp rise in violence has been largely confined to areas close to the opposition rallies, which tourists have been urged to avoid, particularly after dark.

But foreigners can still be seen wandering around several protest sites, which often resemble street markets.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is under intense pressure to step down, with the protesters calling for an unelected "people's council" to tackle what they see as corruption and a culture of money politics. Her supporters say they will not accept the removal of an elected government by the protesters, military or the courts, raising fears of a protracted stand-off.

Yingluck has been summoned by an anti-graft panel today to hear charges of neglect of duty in connection with a rice subsidy scheme the opposition says is rife with corruption. If found guilty she could be removed from office and face a five-year ban from politics.

Yingluck flew to the northern city of Chiang Rai yesterday to inspect government-backed projects, saying she might not attend the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) hearing. "I have not yet made up my mind," she said.

NACC commissioner Vicha Mahakhun said Yingluck's lawyer had informed the panel that he would represent her at the hearing. "If she doesn't show up we can send the documents by registered mail," Vicha said.

Officials denied the premier was on the run from protesters, who have vowed to pursue her wherever she goes and have besieged state buildings where she has held cabinet meetings since the occupation of her headquarters in December. "She is not avoiding the political situation in Bangkok," Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt said.

More than 700 people have been wounded in street violence since demonstrators took to the streets in late October seeking to curb the political dominance of Yingluck's billionaire family.

The opposition blames Yingluck's followers for the violence, while government supporters accuse the demonstrators of trying to incite the military to step in.

Four children were among those killed over the weekend.