Thai troops and armored vehicles gathered early Wednesday at the edges of the barricaded encampment of anti-government protesters in downtown Bangkok and fired tear gas in what appeared to be the start of a final crackdown to disperse them.
“This is D-Day,” said one soldier when asked if this was the final push.
Sporadic gunfire was heard at daybreak after overnight rumors of a military push to clear the thousands of protesters. Soldiers extended their blockades around the protest site and used loudspeakers to tell all people to return to their homes. Smoke billowed above the city skyline as a government building was on fire in another part of Bangkok.
At least 39 people have been killed and more than 300 people wounded in seven days of clashes in Bangkok between the protesters and troops. All but one of those killed are civilians who were shot.
Hundreds of troops and police, many armed with M-16 assault rifles, were seen in nearby streets and alleys. Three armored personnel carriers were parked in front of the upscale Dusit Thani hotel, across the street from the southern edge of the barricade. Their machine gun mountain turrets pointed toward the barricade wall of tires and bamboo sticks, and troops crouched behind the vehicles.
Soldiers were overheard saying on a military communications radio that troops had entered Lumpini Park, which is behind the barricade.
Wednesday’s troop movement appeared to be the final push by the troops to clear the encampment that the protesters have occupied since mid-May to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, dissolution of Parliament and immediate elections.
It came after Abhisit rejected protesters’ unconditional offer to negotiate Tuesday and insisted there would be no talks until the dwindling anti-government movement abandoned its encampment in Rajprasong, a ritzy area of central Bangkok.
On Tuesday, protest leaders argued over whether they should continue to resist the crackdown. The government estimated that only 3,000 people remain in the downtown encampment, down from 5,000 on Sunday and 10,000 last week.
After a meeting with senators, at least one Red Shirt leader appeared to offer an immediate, unconditional cease-fire to end the violence — a prospect that was met with jeers at the main protest site.
Another leader said any truce would not mean an end to the protest.
“We have come too far to surrender,” said Jatuporn Prompan, a key protest leader. “We are negotiating to have them stop killing, but not to surrender.” He also urged Red Shirt protesters in other provinces to decide their next move.
The protesters say the current administration came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it goes against results of a 2007 election to restore democracy after a military coup.
The protesters’ two-month standoff deteriorated into street clashes Thursday after a military adviser to the Red Shirts was shot by an apparent sniper, just after the army surrounded the protest zone in an attempt to cut off supplies of food and water.
According to government figures, 67 people have died and more than 1,700 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their Bangkok protest in March.
With no end to the protest in sight, authorities had announced that a two-day public holiday was being extended to Friday and there would continue to be a ban on selling gasoline in several Bangkok districts because rioters were using it to make weapons. Police also outlawed the sale of tires in the capital without a police permit because rioters were using them to set fires.
Previous attempts to negotiate an end to the standoff have failed. A government offer earlier this month to hold November elections fell apart after protest leaders made more demands.
The violence in Bangkok, a popular stop for tourists heading to Thailand’s world-famous beaches, has caused concern internationally.
The United Nations called for a negotiated solution to the crisis, saying Monday that “there is a high risk that the situation could spiral out of control.” It urged the military to show restraint and the protesters to “step back from the brink.”
Amnesty International condemned the military’s use of live ammunition in its bid to suppress the protest, saying in a statement that the government “cannot allow soldiers to essentially shoot at anyone within an area it wishes to control.”
The military defended its use of deadly but limited force, saying troops fired only to protect themselves and Bangkok’s citizens and did not pursue pre-emptive attacks.
“If they don’t move close to us, there won’t be any losses,” army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said. The government has repeatedly blamed “terrorists” within the Red Shirt ranks for instigating violence.