Bangkok Explosions Stoke Fears of Wider Violence
By THOMAS FULLER and SETH MYDANS
Published: April 22, 2010
BANGKOK — Five grenades exploded in the heart of Bangkok’s business district on Thursday evening, killing at least one person and wounding 75 as rival groups of protesters demonstrated and shouted insults at one another across a makeshift barricade.
The explosions, several of which took place on the platform of an elevated train, scattered shrapnel through crowds that included foreign tourists, sending people fleeing in panic into shops and restaurants.
The attacks threatened to ignite wider violence after more than six weeks of protests that seek to bring down the government and force a new election.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, speaking on television, blamed the antigovernment protesters known as the red shirts, who have paralyzed parts of Bangkok. He said that rocket-propelled grenades had been fired from within an area the red shirts occupied. Although he said three people had been killed, the government’s Erawan Medical Center confirmed only one death.
It was the worst violence since April 10, when 25 people were killed in a clash between the military and the red shirts, and it raised fears that confrontations between rival groups of protesters could spread.
Tensions have increased in recent days, with the red shirts threatening to march on the financial district and the government warning of an imminent crackdown. “Your days are numbered,” an army spokesman, Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, said Thursday, addressing the red shirts.
The casualties came in an area patrolled by the military where pro-government demonstrators have gathered recently, shouting insults at the anti-government red shirts, who have massed behind a barricade of concrete blocks, stacked tires and sharpened bamboo poles.
“I’m scared to death,” said a tour guide, Samai Moonsang, who was passing on a motorbike when the first of the explosions occurred. “It happened right in front of me.”
In the chaos that followed, pro-government protesters urged troops to attack the red shirts, shouting, “Fight, fight!” They threw rocks and bottles and aimed slingshots at the red shirts’ barriers.
Listening to reports on an antigovernment radio station, red-shirt supporters elsewhere in the city cheered as they followed the news.
The conflict has its roots in social divisions between the mostly poor and rural red shirts and an urban middle class that has not been active on the streets until about a week ago.
The antagonism between them was displayed by a pro-government protester who made a rude gesture toward the red shirts on Thursday as she stood in front of a misspelled placard in English reading “Uneducate people.”
Television images showed wounded civilians being tended where they lay or loaded into the backs of pickup trucks and vans. Medics carried a wounded Westerner in a makeshift stretcher down the stairs from the elevated train station. There were unconfirmed reports of other wounded foreigners. Hospital corridors were packed with bloodied people, some cradled by their friends, some weeping as they talked into cellphones.
But on Patpong Road, the heart of the city’s most famous red-light district, which is adjacent to the financial district, witnesses said women in bikinis continued to dance into the night.
The main red-shirt encampment has forced the closing of malls and hotels in the city’s commercial center, not far from where the grenades struck. The demonstrators have put up defenses and prepared for battle, and any move against them would risk causing high casualties.
The government says the red shirts are backed by a rogue military faction that caused the casualties on April 10 and that includes retired generals allied with the fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Mr. Thaksin, who is abroad evading a prison term for corruption, is believed to be a key financer and organizer of the red shirt movement. His base of support is among the rural poor, and the movement has made deep inroads in northeastern and northern Thailand.
On Thursday, antigovernment demonstrators in the northeast stopped a train carrying military vehicles, underlining the impunity of the protest movement and the government’s weakening control of the populous hinterland.
Explosions in recent days damaged a jet fuel depot and pylons supporting high-tension wires that supply electricity to Bangkok. No one has claimed responsibility for those attacks and others carried out on bank branches and military installations. But taken together, they suggest a campaign by shadowy elements in Thailand to stir fear and create a sense of instability.
In Bangkok, protest leaders have made veiled threats about damage to downtown malls and hotels. In the event of a crackdown, “there might be some people who will try to save their lives by seeking shelter inside the malls,” said Nattawut Saikua, one of the protest leaders. “We cannot control people who are trying to survive.”
Kriangkrai Punsing, one of several hundred private security guards sent to protect the malls, said he and his colleagues had been told their primary mission was to protect the shops’ inventories, a job that he said might be futile.
Mr. Kriangkrai said he had overheard protesters discussing plans to raid the malls if the military moves in. “Things will be out of control if a crackdown happens, no matter what plans are,” he said.