22 October 2014

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Gunfire and explosions killed three civilians and one policeman on Tuesday (Feb. 18) and injured more than 60 others when anti-government protesters refused to remove barricades from Bangkok's streets, pushing the death toll to 14 in confrontations which have crippled Thailand since November.

The powerful National Anti-Corruption Commission meanwhile told Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Tuesday (Feb. 18) to appear on Feb. 27 to face allegations that she was negligent in a massive rice subsidy scheme in which many farmers have not been paid for their crops.

Those allegations could lead to criminal charges and a court case against Ms. Yingluck, which the protesters hope will result in her impeachment and the collapse of her popularly elected pro-U.S. government.

She has denied all accusations of wrongdoing.

In the streets, police initially used truncheons, tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters who hurled rocks and other debris while defending barricades across a wide main street in front of Democracy Monument near Phan Fa Bridge.

Protesters refused to clear their barbed wire, sandbags, car tires, and construction blocks, and became increasingly violent, prompting police to resort to live ammunition.

One Western photographer said he saw a protester with an assault rifle, accompanied by a man who picked up the weapon's ejected bullet cases, apparently to conceal evidence.

Nearby, a thrown grenade landed at the feet of police who were cowering behind shields to avoid protesters' assaults.

One brave officer desperately tried to kick the grenade away, but the explosion severely wounded his leg and injured several other police.

The horrific blast was shown on TV by the British Broadcasting Corp. and other channels.

Police retreated at nightfall, unable to clear the barricades after the clashes killed three male protesters and one policeman, and injured more than 60 others, according to the Erawan Medical Center which monitors hospitals.

Protesters also continued blockades around Ms. Yingluck's Government House office, which have prevented her from working there for several weeks, and also at the Interior Ministry and five key intersections including a public park.

Police successfully cleared the besieged Energy Ministry on Tuesday (Feb. 18) and arrested about 100 protesters.

The blockades have severely damaged the government's ability to rule, but Ms. Yingluck's other major challenge is in the courts.

Judges and lawyers are probing her administration on allegations of corruption and other possible violations.

To help rice farmers during the past two years, Ms. Yingluck's administration created subsidies for farmers by promising to pay them up to 50 percent more than international prices for their rice.

The government hoped to stockpile large quantities of rice until the international price increased, and then sell the stored rice at a profit, benefiting the farmers and the country.

The plan faltered when worldwide rice prices dropped and Thailand's rice warehouses began overflowing amid allegations that farmers, millers, traders and others were deviously maneuvering the stockpiles to profit themselves.

Many angry, unpaid rice farmers are now considering joining the anti-government protesters to force Ms. Yingluck's government out of office, after banks were unable to secure loans on Monday (Feb. 17) which could have allowed some payments to be made.

The anti-government protesters are led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister for security affairs in the previous government.

"They are bloody dictators," Mr. Suthep said, denouncing the government at a rally on Tuesday (Feb. 18) after the clashes.

"Even if she [Ms. Yingluck] runs away, we will hunt her down," Mr. Suthep said.

Mr. Suthep has been avoiding an indictment for alleged multiple murders committed in 2010 when he and the military crushed a nine-week-long pro-democracy uprising in Bangkok, which left more than 90 people dead, most of them civilians.

Mr. Suthep also faces a recent arrest warrant for "insurrection," punishable by life imprisonment or lethal injection, based on his role in leading the current protests.

He vowed to continue destabilizing Ms. Yingluck's government until she resigns and allows a "people's council" of 400 unidentified men to rule Thailand.

He wants them to limit the power of elected politicians and increase the domination of appointees in the government, courts, bureaucracy and other institutions, to "reform" Thailand.

Ms. Yingluck recently dissolved Parliament's House of Representatives and held an election on Feb. 2 to prove her popularity.

Mr. Suthep's protesters however forcibly blocked 10 percent of Thailand's 93,000 polling stations, because Ms. Yingluck and her candidates were expected to win.

The election results are in limbo until additional voting can be held in disrupted regions.

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Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are:

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(Copyright 2013 Richard S Ehrlich)