BANGKOK — Anti-government protesters took over key intersections in Thailand’s capital Monday, halting much of the traffic into Bangkok’s central business district as part of a months-long campaign to thwart elections and overthrow the democratically elected prime minister.
The intensified protests, which could last weeks or more, were peaceful and life continued normally in much of the capital. But they raise the stakes in a long-running crisis that has killed at least eight people in the last two months and fueled fears of more bloodshed to come and a possible army coup.
Overnight, an unidentified gunman opened fire on protesters camped near a vast government complex, shooting one man in the neck who was admitted to a nearby hospital, according to the city’s emergency medical services. The drive-by was the third of its kind since Jan. 6.
In a separate incident early Monday, a gunman fired about 10 shots at the headquarters of the opposition Democrat Party, shattering several windows but causing no casualties, said Police Maj. Nartnarit Rattanaburi.
The protesters are demanding that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration be replaced by a non-elected “people’s council” which would implement reforms they say are needed to end corruption and money politics.
Critics have lashed out at the moves as a power struggle aimed at bringing the Southeast Asian nation’s fragile democracy to a halt. Candlelight vigils have been held to counter the shut down and urge the Feb. 2 election to be held on schedule despite an opposition boycott.
In a speech late Sunday, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban repeated a vow that neither he nor his supporters will negotiate an end to the crisis.
“In this fight, defeat is defeat and victory is victory. There is no tie,” he said. “The masses from all walks of life have woken up. They’re aware that we are the owners of Thailand.”
Protesters have vowed to surround Cabinet ministries to prevent them from functioning, and vowed to cut water and electricity to the private residences of Yingluck and her Cabinet.
Most Thai and international schools in Bangkok were closed Monday, as were some major shopping malls. Many residents appeared to stay home, and traffic was light across much of the city.
The protests centered on seven major intersections, where demonstrators cut roads with walls of sandbags or vans and organized lively sit-ins on mats beneath stages equipped with speaker systems.
At one crossroads in the heart of the capital’s financial district, huge Thai flags hung from an overhead walkway, and protesters wearing bandanas and sunglasses forced drivers to turn their cars around. Police, keen to avert violence, made no effort to stop them.
Van operator Wanida Jantawong complained that she was getting only a fourth of her normal business due to the shutdown.
“There’s one lane that remained open for our vans to run, but there are no customers. They are afraid to come around this area,” she said.
The crisis dates back to 2006, when mass protests calling for then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — Yingluck’s brother — to step down because of alleged corruption and abuse of power led to a military coup. Since then, supporters and opponents of Thaksin have vied for power, sometimes violently.
The protesters say that billionaire Thaksin, who lives in exile, continues to manipulate Thai politics. Thaksin commands overwhelming support in Thailand’s less well-off rural areas, where voters are grateful for his populist programs, including virtually free health care. He and his allies have won every national election since 2001.
Since Yingluck assumed the premiership after 2011 elections, she has walked a careful tightrope with the army and her opponents that succeeded in maintaining political calm. But the trigger for the latest protests was an ill-advised move late last year by ruling party lawmakers to push through a bill under the guise of a reconciliation measure offering a legal amnesty for political offenders. The last-minute inclusion of Thaksin led to public outrage and the bill was voted down.
Since then, demonstrators have steadily escalated pressure on Yingluck, attacking her office at government house and the city’s police headquarters for several days in December with slingshots and homemade rocket launchers, and occupying the compounds of several government agencies they withdrew from last month.
There are fears the protesters are trying to incite violence to prompt the military to intervene, and Yingluck has dealt softly with demonstrators in a bid to keep the situation calm.
The powerful army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly said he does not want his forces drawn into the conflict; but in a sign of apparent impatience late last month, he refused to rule out the possibility of a military takeover.
The grass-roots pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement, closely allied to Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, has said it will mobilize its supporters to fight any coup.
Protest leaders have said they will maintain their “shutdown” for weeks, or until they obtain their goal. Their recent demonstrations have drawn up to 150,000-200,000 people at their height.
The protesters’ attempt to destabilize the country has been assisted by the opposition Democrat Party, which is boycotting the February elections. Suthep, the main protest leader, is a former senior Democrat leader who served at deputy prime minister in the party’s 2008-2011 government.
In 2010, Suthep ordered the army to crack down on Red Shirt protesters backing Thaksin who occupied downtown Bangkok for two months. Those demonstrations ended with 90 dead, mostly protesters.