BANGKOK – BANGKOK (AP) — Thai pro-establishment activists demanded military action against anti-government protesters and an end to "anarchy" in the capital Thursday, a day after clashes turned a busy expressway into a deadly battle zone.
The re-emergence of the so-called Yellow Shirts — notorious for shutting Bangkok's airports for a week in 2008 — added to the volatility on the streets of Bangkok, where a seven-week standoff has killed at least 27 people and wounded nearly 1,000.
Chamlong Srimuang, a top Yellow Shirt leader, suggested that martial law be imposed, handing over most state functions to the military, and warned that civil war might ensue if the rival "Red Shirt" protesters are not stopped.
The situation in Bangkok remained tense Thursday night, with what sounded like gunshots near a hospital next to the Red Shirt protest camp. It was not clear what the sounds were, or if anyone was hurt. An APTN cameraman heard at least a half dozen popping sounds and filmed soldiers around Chulalongkorn Hospital scrambling for position.
The Red Shirt anti-government protesters often set off fireworks when they feel threatened, but may also have firearms. Grenades fired near that area last week killed one person and wounded dozens, though the government has not directly blamed the Red Shirt protesters.
The Yellow Shirts represent Thailand's business and bureaucratic elite, whose pervasive influence is deeply resented by the Red Shirts, who largely are drawn from the country's many rural and urban poor.
The unrest is the result of a political standoff over a 2006 military coup that ousted populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on corruption allegations. He is a hero to the Red Shirts and is loathed by the Yellow camp. The Red Shirts are demanding current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament, triggering new elections, because they consider his government illegitimate.
The crisis has hurt business in the capital and devastated Thailand's vital tourist industry, which accounts for 6 percent of the economy. Parts of Bangkok's commercial heart have become a Red Shirt protest camp, forcing the closure of some of the city's ritziest malls and hotels.
Government forces clashed with Red Shirts on Wednesday as they attempted to hold a rally in a Bangkok suburb. Heavily armed troops fired rifles and threw tear gas at the motorbike-riding protesters and took cover behind terrified commuters' cars. One soldier was killed — apparently by friendly fire — and 18 other people were wounded during the hourslong confrontation.
The crisis spilled into the diplomatic arena Thursday, with Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya censuring some foreign diplomats for meeting last week with Red Shirt leaders.
"We do not want to see that happening again," Kasit told reporters during a visit to Jakarta, Indonesia. Kasit said he had earlier met with Philippine Ambassador Antonio V. Rodriguez, dean of the Bangkok diplomatic corps, to express his concern.
In a note to other diplomats based in Thailand, Rodriguez said Kasit accused some ambassadors of voicing opposition to the constitutional monarchy and criticizing the government's handling of the crisis. Kasit was a public supporter of the Yellow Shirt movement before becoming foreign minister.
"These actions have gone beyond the limits of diplomatic practice and were unacceptable to the Thai government," Rodriguez summarized Kasit as saying. "The envoys' opposition to the government and to the monarchy was inappropriate and will not be tolerated."
Thailand's king is nearly universally revered, and laws severely restrict discussion of him.
The United States and European Union both said they have met with opposition figures and called for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
At Yellow Shirt rallies at military bases nationwide Thursday, a petition handed out by leaders said the crisis had "become a state of anarchy."
The previously pro-government Yellow Shirts said the government's failures had created "a vacuum of political power and disorder" and the crisis had damaged the economy and Thai society.
"We would like to see the brave soldiers help us get rid of this illegal activity and bring peace to Thai society as soon as possible," the statement said.
Though they have been critical of the Red Shirts' tactics, the Yellow Shirts opened the door to mass street protests with months of anti-Thaksin rallies that ended in the coup that ousted him. When pro-Thaksin politicians later came to power, the Yellow Shirts took to the streets again in 2008 — taking over the prime minister's office for three months and occupying Bangkok's airports for a week. They retreated after Abhisit's arrival in late 2008, but many fear their return could lead to head-on clashes with their rivals.
Associated Press reporters Thanyarat Doksone and Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok and Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.