Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra declared a state of emergency in Bangkok yesterday as an escalation of attacks on anti-government protesters threat- ened to derail elections scheduled for February 2.
Bombings and shootings in the Thai capital have killed one person and injured 70 over the past five days, prompting army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha to call for restraint from protesters and security officials. Suthep Thaugsuban, an opposition politician leading the protests, vowed to continue blockades of major Bangkok intersections that began on January 13.
A state of emergency "is a very risky move from a government that has generally been conciliatory of protesters", said Kevin Hewison, director of the Asia Research Centre at Australia's Murdoch University. "The risk is escalating violence to goad the military to take sides."
The move marks a shift in strategy by Ms Yingluck, who put up mild resistance as demonstrators calling for an unelected council to take power occupied buildings and streets over the past three months. Thailand last experienced a state of emergency to combat protests in 2010, when Mr Suthep's Democrat Party oversaw a crackdown on protesters loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, that killed more than 90 people.
"We will start with negotiations," Ms Yingluck told reporters yesterday.
The government won't use weapons or disperse protesters at night, Labour Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, who will oversee a joint operation between the military and police, told reporters yesterday. The elections will go ahead as planned, he said.
The Election Commission has urged the government to defer the vote until May.
The commission will seek a ruling from the Constitutional Court today on whether the vote can be delayed, Secretary- General Puchong Nutrawong told reporters yesterday.
"We will talk first, and I will be the one to lead negotiations," Mr Chalerm said. "We are all friends. I hope Suthep will change his mind and surrender to police."
Mr Suthep's critics have said he wants to create enough turmoil to spur the intervention of the military in a repeat of a 2006 coup that toppled Mr Thaksin, whose allies have won the past five elections. The protesters want to prevent parties linked to Thaksin from returning to power.
Thailand has had nine coups and more than 20 prime ministers since 1946.