Four Dead as Bangkok Sees Worst Political Violence Since 2010

Police unleash tear gas and water cannons on antigovernment protesters as embattled Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is forced to flee to secret location

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Sakchai Lalit / AP

Antigovernment protesters walk through a cloud of tear gas fired by riot police in Bangkok on Dec. 1, 2013

Updated: 8:13 a.m. E.T.

Four protesters have been killed and more than 100 people injured in Bangkok as pro- and antigovernment rivals face off in escalating street clashes, with police unleashing tear gas and water cannons on the riotous crowd on Sunday. Embattled Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was forced to flee from the police sports club where she was based to a secret location after protesters stormed the compound.

Opponents of Yingluck, a coalition of urban royalists and traditional elites known by the collective moniker Yellow Shirts, have accused her of being merely a proxy for her brother, billionaire former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and was convicted of corruption in absentia, but maintains popular support among the nation’s rural poor in the highly populated northeast part of the country. His supporters are known as Red Shirts.

Sunday was deemed the deadline for weeklong attempts to oust the Yingluck Administration, and demonstrators set about destroying barricades and attempting to enter several government compounds across the Thai capital, also throwing rocks and petrol bombs. “We’re very concerned about the violence, and we’ve been urging both the protesters and government to respect rights,” says Phil Robertson, Bangkok-based deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, which has been closely monitoring unfolding events.

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Protesters at Government House, where Yingluck’s regular office is located, tried to gain access to the compound by hauling away protective barriers using pickup trucks. Their attempts were met with water cannons and tear gas, although some canisters were promptly thrown back at the security forces. More than 21,000 police and 1,000 soldiers have been deployed to protect 10 government installations from being occupied.

On Saturday, around 70,000 Red Shirts, who had gathered near Bangkok’s Rajamangala National Stadium to show support for the current administration, clashed with students, mainly antigovernment Yellow Shirts, emerging from neighboring Ramkhamhaeng University. About 8 p.m. local time, one person was killed when a shot was fired into the campus. Red Shirts had emerged from the stadium to support their comrades after several people were pulled from cars and beaten on the belief that they were Thaksin supporters.

Fighting continued in the surrounding area into the night, and by morning busloads of Red Shirt supporters were leaving the capital after leaders said their safety could not be guaranteed. “With the main group being sent home, hopefully we won’t see that conflict between these two mass movements,” says Robertson. “But there’s always a worry of agent provocateurs from one side or another trying to cause problems.”

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By Sunday, Yellow Shirt protesters had turned their attention to government buildings instead. Although things appeared calmer toward the middle of the day, past experience shows that the situation can quickly escalate further when the cooler evening approaches and more people come out onto the street.

Yingluck, who won landslide election in 2011 to become Thailand’s first female Prime Minister, insists that force would not be used to disperse the crowd and called for negotiations, a plea turned down by protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban. Instead, he called for a general strike Monday to bring down the government.

A former Deputy Prime Minister for the opposition Democrat Party, Suthep urged his supporters to surround various ministries, headquarters of the national and city police as well as the Prime Minister’s office at Government House. Normally bustling shopping malls were shuttered as Bangkok experienced its worst violence since some 90 people were killed and 2,000 injured in similar street clashes in 2010.

This post has been updated from the original version with the latest casualty figures.