Gunfire rang out at a major intersection in Thailand’s capital on Saturday as clashes between protesters and government supporters erupted on the eve of tense nationwide elections. At least seven people were wounded, including an American photojournalist.
The confrontation began after a group of pro-government supporters marched to a district office in northern Bangkok containing ballot boxes that had been surrounded by protesters who have been trying to derail the vote.
The two sides clashed first with rocks and firecrackers, then with pistols and assault rifles. One group of men carrying huge sticks smashed the windshields of a car carrying protesters that sped away. People caught up in the mayhem took refuge inside a nearby shopping mall and ducked on a pedestrian bridge. Some crouched behind vehicles.
According to the city’s emergency services, at least six Thais were wounded, including a reporter for the local Daily News newspaper. An American photojournalist, James Nachtwey, was shot in the leg, according to Associated Press staff on the scene.
The violence came one day ahead of a highly unusual ballot that has little to do with the traditional contests between rival candidates vying for office. Instead, the vote is shaping up as a battle of wills between protesters and the government and those caught in between who insist on their civil rights.
On the one side are demonstrators who say they want to suspend the country’s fragile democracy to institute anti-corruption reforms, and on the other, forces supporting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and civilians who know the election will do little to solve the nation’s crisis but insist the right to vote should not be taken away.
“How did we get to this point?” asked Chanida Pakdeebanchasak, a 28-year-old Bangkok resident who was determined to cast her ballot Sunday no matter what happens. “Since when does going to vote mean you don’t love the country?”
The protesters, a minority that cannot win power at the polls, are demanding the government be replaced by an unelected council that would implement political and electoral reforms to combat deep-seated problems of corruption and money politics. Yingluck has refused to step down, arguing she is open to reform and such a council would be unconstitutional.
The crisis-which has killed 10 people and wounded nearly 600 since November, has almost completely overshadowed campaigning. Instead of stump speeches and electrified rallies for candidates hoping to take office, Thailand’s muted capital has been gripped by a palpable sense of dread and uncertainty over whether demonstrators will physically block voters from getting inside polling centers.