A Thai anti-government protest leader was shot and killed amid escalating political tensions in Bangkok on Sunday, when violence erupted as demonstrators blocked early voting in many parts of the capital ahead of a disputed election next week.
It brings the death toll to 10, with scores wounded, since protesters took to the streets in November, vowing to shut down the capital and force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office.
A spokesman for the national police, Piya Utayo, identified the dead man as Suthin Tharatin, one of the protest leaders. "Suthin was shot in the head and in the chest," he said.
The scuffle also left 11 people wounded, and isolated street brawls broke out in several parts of Bangkok as anti-government demonstrators swarmed polling stations. They chained doors shut and blocked voters in a move that seemingly contradicted an earlier pledge not to obstruct advance voting for next week's contentious general election.
The chaos was the latest blow to Yingluck’s embattled government, which called the Feb. 2 vote in a failed bid to ease months of street protests against her rule. The unrest has thrown the nation into crisis.
Although disruptions were expected at electoral venues in Bangkok and in opposition strongholds in southern Thailand, voting Sunday was expected to go ahead unhindered in most of the country. About 49 million of Thailand's 64 million people are eligible to cast ballots, and 2.16 million applied for advance voting.
Ruling party officials suggested over the weekend that they were willing to delay the main vote next week — but only if protests end and the main opposition party abandons its boycott. There has been no sign yet that Yingluck's rivals would agree, although Yingluck and the Election Commission are expected to meet Tuesday to discuss the possibility of putting the ballot off.
In Bangkok on Sunday, protesters waving the Thai flag blocked electoral officials and ballot boxes from getting inside voting stations, and electoral officials closed 18 of them in Bangkok and 11 in the south as a result, electoral officials said. There are 50 stations in Bangkok, and 152 nationwide.
Police took no action to disperse the crowds, following longstanding orders from Yingluck to avert violence for fear of triggering a military coup that could depose her government.
Suthida Sungkhapunthu, a 28-year-old office worker, turned back from one polling station after reading news of the day's mayhem on her phone.
"I saw this coming but I'm still quite disappointed," she said, denouncing the protesters as "undemocratic" as she watched the mob at her polling station a block away. "It's my constitutional right" to vote.
The protest movement, known as the People's Democratic Reform Committee, said on its Facebook page that it was not obstructing the poll. The group reiterated comments late Saturday by its leader, former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, that "supporters are simply protesting the advance polls held today by surrounding/standing in front of election units."
The protesters are pushing for Yingluck's government to be replaced by a non-elected “people's council” that would implement anti-corruption reforms before a new vote can take place. They accuse Yingluck's government of carrying on the practices of her billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister they allege used the family fortune and state funds to influence voters and subvert democracy.
Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 after street protests accusing him of corruption and abuse of power. The coup triggered a sometimes-violent and still active struggle for power between Thaksin's supporters and opponents. He fled into exile in 2008 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a conflict of interest.
Yingluck has faced months of street protests, which intensified this month with demonstrators taking over key intersections and trying to shut down government offices to prevent civil servants from working.