BANGKOK (AP) — Gunmen killed an anti-government protester and wounded two others in the Thai capital on Saturday, raising fears that the country's deepening political crisis was headed toward sustained violence on the streets of Bangkok.
The overnight attack took place close to a protest camp in the city center, according to a government-run medical center. It happened hours after the country's powerful army chief said he didn't want the military dragged into the conflict as some protesters would like, but also refused to rule out the possibility of a coup.
A long-running dispute between Thailand's bitterly divided political factions intensified anew in November, raising doubts over the democratic future of the country, which is a major U.S. ally, Southeast Asia's second largest economy and a popular tourist destination.
Protesters led by a former deputy prime minister are carrying out a campaign to topple the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ahead of snap polls on Feb. 2 that most believe will give her a strong mandate.
On Thursday, protesters tried to overrun a Bangkok sports stadium where election candidates were gathering to draw lots for their positions on ballots. Masked protesters fired rocks from slingshots as they tried to break into the building to halt the process, while police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Two people, including a police officer, were shot dead.
The Erawan medical center said a 31-year man was killed by gunfire and two others wounded in the attack on Saturday at around 3:30 a.m. Local media said one or more unidentified gunmen opened fire on guards close to a protest camp before escaping into the night.
Hundreds of candidates Saturday were registering to run in the polls, providing an opportunity for more unrest.
By mid-morning, there were sporadic protests at some locations but the registration process was unaffected, according to Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, a commissioner of the Election Commission.
Thailand's army has so far stayed out of the crisis, but it has staged 11 successful coups in the country's history — the last against Yingluck's brother, then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2006 — so its intentions are being watched carefully.
Asked whether a military takeover was possible, army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said simply, "That door is neither open nor closed ... it will be determined by the situation." While ambiguous, his words were taken by some as warning that it might one day intervene.
Thailand has been plagued by political turmoil since the 2006 coup. In broad terms, the conflict pits the Thai elite and the educated middle-class against Thaksin's power base in the countryside, which benefited from his populist policies designed to win over the rural poor.
The protesters accuse Yingluck of being a proxy for Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction but still wields influence in the country. An ill-advised bid by Yingluck's ruling Pheu Thai party to push an amnesty law through Parliament that would have allowed Thaksin's return from exile sparked the latest wave of protests.