BANGKOK: Thai police on Saturday fired tear gas and detained dozens of demonstrators as clashes erupted at the first major street protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government.
The violence, while relatively small scale, appeared to mark a new phase in Thailand’s long-running political crisis pitting Thai royalists against ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra — Yingluck’s brother — and his supporters.
About 17,000 police officers were deployed for the rally in Bangkok’s historic district, which was organized by the royalist group Pitak Siam (Protecting Siam), a relatively new force in the kingdom’s fractured political scene.
“In the name of Pitak Siam and its allies I promise that we will topple this government,” the movement’s head, retired general Boonlert Kaewprasit, declared from the rally stage.
But the estimated attendance of about 20,000 fell far short of the half a million organizers had hoped for, and by early evening as rain began to fall Boonlert called off the protest, which had been due to last until Sunday.
“I can’t afford to lose even one life so I declare the rally over,” he announced.
The demo comes two and a half years after 90 people died and about 1,900 were wounded in a military crackdown on “Red Shirt” protests in the heart of the capital against the previous government, which was replaced by Yingluck’s administration last year.
Earlier Saturday tensions flared as police fired several rounds of tear gas at protesters trying to ram through barriers near the main rally site in the Royal Plaza using a truck.
“Tear gas was used in one area because protesters did not comply with the rules,” said national police spokesman Major General Piya Uthayo.
About 100 protesters were detained while knives and bullets were confiscated, he said.
Forty-two people, including seven police officers, were treated for cuts and other injuries, officials said.
The authorities called in an extra 5,700 police after the clashes, but allowed the rally to go ahead at the main protest site, the Royal Plaza.
Yingluck on Thursday voiced fears the protesters aimed to use violence and to “overthrow an elected government and democratic rule.”
The government invoked the Internal Security Act (ISA) in three districts of the capital to cope with possible unrest, giving the police additional powers to block routes, impose a curfew, ban gatherings and carry out searches.
Thailand has been rocked by a series of sometimes violent rival street protests in recent years, although an uneasy calm had returned after national elections in 2011.
At their height, the Red Shirt rallies in 2010 drew about 100,000 people demanding the resignation of the previous government and the return of Thaksin, who was toppled by royalist generals in a coup in 2006.
Thaksin, who made billions as a telecoms tycoon, is adored by many poor Thais for his populist policies while in power, but reviled by many in elite, military and palace circles who see him as authoritarian and a threat to the monarchy.
The demonstrators at Saturday’s rally, who included supporters of the influential “Yellow Shirt” royalist movement, called on Yingluck’s government to stand down.
“I can’t stand that they disrespect the king. I want the government to quit,” said 48-year-old farmer Namsai Jantarat from the northern province of Chiang Mai.
The Red Shirts threatened to strike back in the event of a new coup.
“This rally is illegitimate,” Red Shirt leader Thida Thavornseth said at a news conference Saturday. “We will come out in force if there is any sign of a coup or the government loses control.”