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Bangkok's Political Violence Worsens as Grenades Hit Protest

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Bangkok's political violence worsened on Sunday (Jan. 19) when grenades and gunfire injured 29 people at an anti-government protest, two days after a grenade killed one protester and injured 36 others who were marching to force the prime minister's resignation and stop an election scheduled for Feb. 2.

About 10 people in total have died in scattered shootings, explosions and clashes during the massive street protest which began on Oct. 31, and security officials are bracing for more attacks.

Sunday's (Jan. 19) first explosion occurred downtown during lunchtime at Victory Monument, where hundreds of protesters were peacefully camping in tents in the street next to their huge makeshift stage, to block traffic and disrupt Bangkok's economy in a bid to destabilize the government.

An unidentified man threw a grenade near a media tent erected for journalists, injuring at least 28 people including a Thai reporter, medical officials said.

Witnesses chased the suspect who then threw a second grenade and fired a gun at his pursuers, injuring one more person.

The suspect escaped by hopping onto a motorcycle driven by another man.

In a similar attack two days earlier several miles away, an unknown person tossed a grenade at marching protesters, killing one man and injuring 36 others.

Security officials said they are afraid to arrest protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban on a warrant for "insurrection" -- punishable by life imprisonment or lethal injection -- because his 40 bodyguards and his supporters would react with violence.

Mr. Suthep "is under the strong protection of his guards," Caretaker Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said on Thursday (Jan. 16).

"It would be no good if we charge him at a protest site," said Mr.

Surapong who also heads a recently formed Center for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO) to handle protesters who violate the law.

Mr. Suthep is also wanted on an indictment for alleged multiple murders committed in 2010 when he was former deputy prime minister for security affairs in the previous government.

At that time, Mr. Suthep worked with the military to crush a pro-democracy uprising which left 90 people dead, mostly civilians, during nine weeks of clashes.

Today, Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s strategy is to avoid cracking down on the tens of thousands of protesters because she and the security forces do not want a repeat of the bloodshed in 2010.

The government's passivity is also designed not to give the politicized military a pretext to stage a coup -- something Mr. Suthep appears to be hoping for, because his street campaign has not been enough to topple Ms. Yingluck.

During the past 10 weeks, protesters have been freely roaming Bangkok, blockading main streets, cutting electricity and water supply to official buildings, threatening staff, and occupying, looting and locking up government offices.

Mr. Suthep, emboldened by a sense of immunity, also leads disruptive marches each day, and appears on protest stages which feature other speakers and live musical entertainment for thousands of supporters who camp in the street as human shields.

Mr. Suthep began describing his protest on Jan. 13 as a "shut down Bangkok" campaign for the rest of January, hoping to create economic and political gridlock which would provoke military intervention or force Ms. Yingluck to quit.

The protesters are demanding less democracy and a greater number of appointed officials to rule this troubled, Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian country.

Mr. Suthep wants to replace the popularly elected government with an unelected "people's committee" of 400 people who would rule for 18 months.

They would "reform" the system and then permit modified elections for a limited number of posts under a regime dominated by other appointees.

Many of Mr. Suthep's white-collar supporters in Bangkok do not want him to become prime minister because of his controversial past.

They follow him because Mr. Suthep is the only person able to lead a protest against Ms. Yingluck who they cannot defeat through elections because she and her colleagues enjoy the support of most voters.

"We hope after Yingluck leaves, and Suthep's reform is finished, a new choice of other people will appear who we can elect instead of Yingluck or Suthep," said one office worker at a Japanese-owned company who asked not to be identified.

Mr. Suthep portrays Ms. Yingluck as a puppet of her billionaire brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a bloodless 2006 coup despite winning three elections.

Mr. Thaksin was later convicted of corruption and is in self-exile dodging a two-year prison sentence while demanding the return of $1.2 billion in cash and assets seized by the courts for abuse of power he committed during his 2001-2006 administration.

ENDS

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