BANGKOK—Krump! Krump! The sound of tear gas canister explosions disrupted anti-government speeches in Bangkok’s Royal Plaza Saturday. Supporters of the Thai royalist group Pitak Siam crowded the square.
They numbered more than 10,000—predominantly middle-class Bangkokians—and many held images of Thai royalty. Bangkok Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is largely seen by Pitak Siam supporters to be her brother’s puppet. Former prime minister and billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by a military coup in 2006 and currently lives abroad to avoid criminal charges.
Protest leader Boonlert Kaewprasit, a retired army general, emerged from behind the large stage in the plaza. He made his way toward the police who were throwing the tear gas canisters.
Encumbered by an entourage and a gaggle of reporters, it was slow going for Boonlert across the 160 yards or so between him and the police. The crowd made way for Boonlert. First-aid attendants also parted the crowd for several people injured in the clash.
It was just after 2 p.m. local time, and it was the second of two violent incidents Saturday at rally entry points blocked by large numbers of riot police. Photos were soon circulating showing damage to a protester’s vehicle that was allegedly shot at by police.
The tear gas around the intersection cleared. The former general returned to the stage. Only a small number of protesters, including some hecklers, remained to face off with the larger number of riot police.
Many of the police wore gas masks and full riot gear. At times, they beat their batons on their shields in unison, creating a menacing rhythm. It was a muscular show of force from Yingluck’s government against the well-organized protesters.
“This whole country, it belongs to Thaksin,” protester Chris Krittiyathamrong said of Yingluck’s brother. “He’s bought everything.” Krittiyathamrong attended the rally to show his opposition to government corruption and policies he believes will bankrupt the country.
“The majority of these people who have come here have had enough [of government corruption],” he said.
While the rally was attended by more than 10,000 people, Boonlert had hoped for a much larger number. Pitak Siam supporters say many buses bringing in protesters from outside the capital were stopped by police at checkpoints.
Two days before the rally, Prime Minister Yingluck announced the use of an internal security act in three districts of Bangkok to give the police increased power in handling the rally.
Yingluck cited national security.
“If a large number of people are mobilized by incitement, led by those who seek to overthrow an elected government and democratic rule—which is against the constitution—and there is evidence that violence may be used to achieve those ends, then this is a case of national security,” said Yingluck during a public broadcast.
“It is the government’s duty to preserve law and order, protect the lives and property of everyone—including those who are protesting and those who are not involved,” she said.
Vachara Riddhagri, a spokesman for Pitak Siam, said the government used unnecessary force, as the rally was peaceful and was within their constitutional rights to conduct.
“Yesterday evening they gathered all the policemen—about 18,000 men—who came out and cordoned off this area. Then they blocked off nine roads leading to the [site of the rally] since yesterday evening,” said Vachara.
The police’s action in blocking off key entry points to the rally site, Vachara said, was designed to provoke violence.
“It has been planned by the government, by the police, to escalate the situation and to accuse us of causing this violence,” he said.
Head of the Thai police Adul Saengsingkaew said the blame lay with protesters, according to the Bangkok Post. He said protesters instigated the two incidences of violence by throwing objects at police and pulling down police barriers.
Out of concern that the police would attack the protesters after dark, Boonlert abruptly called off the rally at 5 p.m. He also resigned from his leadership role in Pitak Siam.
The Bangkok Post reported that throughout the protest, 61 people were injured and 130 people were arrested.
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