UDON THANI- A leading pro-government activist was shot and wounded on Wednesday in Thailand's northeast, a stronghold of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, as a state of emergency began in the capital where protesters are trying to force her from power.
The government issued the 60-day emergency decree late on Tuesday, handing security agencies wide powers to detain suspects, impose a curfew and limit gatherings in and around Bangkok.
Officials said it was aimed at preventing an escalation of the protests that have gripped the capital for more than two months and brought parts of the centre to a halt.
Bangkok appeared normal and people went about their business as usual. Police did not try to break up the protests, including one outside a complex where Yingluck was working.
But highlighting the risk of the political deadlock turning violent, "red shirt" leader Kwanchai Praipana, who had warned of a nationwide "fight" if the military launched a coup, was wounded in the arm and leg in a drive-by shooting at his home in the northeastern town of Udon Thani.
Police said they believed it was politically motivated. "From the way the assailants fired, they obviously didn't want him to live," his wife, Arporn Sarakham, told Reuters. Police said they had found 39 bullet cases at the house.
Kwanchai Praipana leads thousands of pro-government supporters in Udon Thani province.
On Tuesday, he told Reuters that if the military attempted a coup: "I can assure you, on behalf of the 20 provinces in the northeast, that we will fight. The country will be set alight if the soldiers come out."
So far the military, which has been involved in 18 actual or attempted coups in the past 81 years, has kept out of the fray. The police are charged with imposing the state of emergency, under orders from Yingluck to treat protesters against her government with patience.
Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, said the emergency decree was designed largely to give Yingluck legal protection if there is violence and the police step in.
Nine people have died and dozens have been wounded in violence, including two grenade attacks in the capital over the weekend, since protesters took to the streets in November to demand Yingluck step down and a "people's council" be set up to bring sweeping reforms to Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.
FEARS OF ELECTION DAY VIOLENCE
The protests are the latest eruption in a political conflict that has gripped the country for eight years. It pits the middle class of Bangkok and royalist establishment against the mainly poorer supporters of Yingluck and her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, toppled by the military in 2006.
Yingluck called a snap election for Feb. 2 in the hope of defusing the protests.
The Election Commission is worried it will fan the violence and says the protests have prevented some candidates from registering, meaning there will not be a quorum to open parliament. It is asking the Constitutional Court to rule on whether it can delay the vote. "If it happens on Feb. 2, there will not be enough new MPs for a new government to be formed anyway. Then Thailand would move to a period of growing limbo where the anti-Thaksin judiciary would decide on whether to void the election or not,"Chambers said.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has rejected the election outright. He accuses Thaksin of corruption and nepotism and wants to change the electoral system to eradicate the influence of Thaksin, who lives in exile in Dubai to avoid a jail term handed down in 2008 for abuse of power.
Suthep, when he was a deputy prime minister, sent in troops to end mass protests by pro-Thaksin supporters in 2010. More than 90 people died in that unrest.
The crisis has hurt tourism and business confidence. But the central bank, in unexpectedly positive comments, said it thought the impact of the crisis would only be short-term.
Adding to Yingluck's problems, farmers, who are part of her core constituency, have threatened to join the protest if they do not get paid for the rice they have sold to the government under a controversial intervention scheme.
Her government guaranteed them an above-market price for their rice but the scheme has run into funding difficulties.
The government has sold a bond and is seeking loans to tide it over, but the Election Commission, which has to approve such action by the caretaker government, has declined to give its support.