BANGKOK – Gunmen shot and wounded a top leader of a major pro-government movement in northern Thailand on Wednesday, and demonstrators pushing to overthrow the prime minister defied the start of a state of emergency imposed in the capital to cope with the nation's increasingly bloody political crisis.
Kwanchai Praipana was shot twice and hospitalized after unidentified gunmen in a pick-up truck sprayed bursts of gunfire at his home in Udon Thani, according to another leader of the group, Jutaporn Promphan.
The government announced the state of emergency late Tuesday in the wake of a string of attacks that have mostly been aimed at demonstrators protesting peacefully in Bangkok. Grenade assaults on Friday and Sunday killed one man and wounded more than 60 people alone, bringing the casualty toll since November to at least nine dead and more than 550 hurt.
The emergency decree allows authorities to ban public gatherings, impose curfews and censor local news reports for 60 days.
But the government said it would not use those powers to crack down on demonstrators who have seized several patches of the capital, and life in the city continued as normal with tourist sites unaffected and no major deployment of extra security forces.
The powerful army commander, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, said "we will have to see" whether the decree helps ease the violence.
The protesters have refused to negotiate with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, but Prayuth urged both sides to talk, saying, "we must stop this conflict to let the country move forward."
"I'm in favor of discussion. No one takes all or loses all. No one wins all or loses all, so we have to find a way," he said. Because "whenever the conflict has gone to the point that it is not fixable, the soldiers have to fix it."
Thailand's military has staged 11 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Prayuth has repeatedly said he does not want the army to intervene, but has pointedly refused to rule out a coup.
The protesters have blocked major streets and marched on government offices in a bid to shut down the capital and force Yingluck's resignation to make way for an appointed government to implement reforms to fight corruption, which they say must be implemented before any vote. The opposition Democrat Party, closely aligned with the protesters, is boycotting the polls.
The protesters charge that Yingluck's government is carrying on the practices of Thaksin Shinawatra, her billionaire brother who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, by using the family fortune and state funds to influence voters and cement its power. Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006 after protests accused him of corruption and abuse of power. He fled into exile in 2008 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a conflict of interest conviction.
The unrest has cast doubt over whether Feb. 2 elections, which Yingluck called to quell the crisis, will be held.
On Wednesday, the Election Commission requested the Constitutional Court to issue a ruling on how and whether the ballot can be delayed.
Charupong Ruangsuwan, caretaker Interior Minister, told The Associated Press the vote should go ahead and the Election Commission should not use the state of emergency as an excuse to postpone the poll.
"They can use any excuses all they want, but their duty is to hold the election," he said. "They may accuse the government of causing problems, but the government doesn't have any problems."
The emergency decree appeared to embolden the demonstrators. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban vowed late Tuesday to continue demonstrating and questioned whether the declaration was justified, saying the protesters had been peaceful.
"Whatever they warn us not to do, we will do," he declared. "We will march on the routes they ban. ... If they order us not to rally, we will be here indefinitely."
Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said Suthep's protesters "have constantly violated the law, especially in closing down government offices and banks and harassment against civil servants to prevent them from working."
He added the demonstrators "had gone overboard, and attacks were carried out by ill-intentioned people, causing people to be injured and killed, affecting the country's stability."
Deputy army spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree said the military would support the government and supply forces as needed.
Associated Press writer Grant Peck contributed to this report.