BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand’s prime minister declared a state of emergency in the capital Tuesday, empowering the military to restore order after street fighting between supporters and opponents of the government left one man dead and dozens injured.
The violence — the most serious since the protests began — followed a threat by state workers to cut off water, electricity and phone service at government offices and disrupt flights of the national airline in support of protesters trying to bring down Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.
“I did it to solve the problems of the country,” Samak said in televised comments, hours after the emergency decree was announced. “Because the situation turned out this way, I had no other choice.”
The measure allows the use of military forces in policing activities, limits public gatherings, bans news reports that could instigate violence, and allows security officials to clear public roads, buildings and other areas. It would also permit the military to immediately oust the protesters occupying the prime minister’s premises.
Samak called emergency rule the “softest means available” for restoring calm. He said it would end “moderately quickly,” but didn’t explain.
A week of political tension exploded into violence early Tuesday morning between protesters seeking to topple Samak and mobs of his supporters.
About 500 Samak supporters marched through the streets proclaiming they were going to retake the prime minister’s office compound, which has been occupied since Aug. 26 by the People’s Alliance for Democracy.
The mob scuffled with police about halfway to the Government House complex, then battled with alliance members, both sides wielding sticks and clubs.
Police were unable to stop the fighting, which eased up only after army troops with riot gear — but no guns — reached the scene.
Although the troops were able to keep the antagonists apart, few supporters of either side dispersed, keeping the area a flashpoint for further trouble.
One person died from severe head injuries and four others were in serious condition, two with gunshot wounds, Dr. Petchapon Kumtonkitjakarn of the Erawan Medical Center told The Associated Press. He said 37 people were being treated for injuries at several hospitals.
On Monday, a coalition of 43 unions representing workers at state companies including water, electric, phone and the national airline said they would cut off services to the government starting Wednesday in support of the anti-government protests. They already were disrupting rail service and planned to cut back public bus transportation.
“The government has beaten protesters, and that justifies our retaliating by stopping water, telephone service and electricity to some government agencies,” Sawit Kaewwan, secretary-general of the State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation, or SERC, said at a news conference.
The labor federation said 200,000 members would stop work in support of the alliance of right-wing protesters that has occupied Samak’s office for a week in its campaign to bring down the government.
The alliance claims the government is corrupt and too close to ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and recently fled to Britain to escape an array of corruption charges. The same group organized the massive anti-Thaksin demonstrations in 2006 that helped spark the bloodless coup.
The alliance and their sympathizers — monarchists, the military and the urban elite — complain that Western-style democracy with one-man, one-vote gives too much weight to Thailand’s rural majority, who protesters say are susceptible to vote buying that breeds corruption. They have proposed a system under which most lawmakers would be appointed rather than elected.
The prime minister has repeatedly insisted he will not bow to pressure by resigning or dissolving parliament to call new elections.
Sawit and others laid out plans for the work stoppage by state employees but did not say how long the action would last.
Public bus workers will halt service on 80 percent of Bangkok’s 3,800 buses, with the remainder running for free, he said.
Workers for state-owned Thai Airways plan to delay flights Wednesday, said Somsak Manop, deputy chief of Thai Airways International labor union.
Hundreds of employees from the State Railways of Thailand continued a strike Monday that has halted service on 93 train lines, cutting off most long-distance service between Bangkok and the far-northern and southern parts of the country, said spokesman Phairath Rojjaroenngam. More than half of the 76 cargo trains scheduled Monday were also not running.
There was no schedule for restoring service, which has been disrupted since the strike started Friday.
Three airports in southern Thailand were also forced to close by protesters this weekend.
“If they continue to defiantly hold on to power even after the general strike on Sept. 3, the alliance will have no choice but to step up the pressure on them,” Suriyasai Katasila, one of the protest leaders, said of the government.
Protesters began occupying the prime minister’s office on Aug. 26 and have tried block streets in the capital. The alliance has been able to call out as many as 30,000 supporters, according to an early government estimate, to besiege Samak’s office and blockade other public areas.
At the prime minister’s residence Monday, several thousand protesters spread out across courtyards, gardens and park benches, cheering and clapping as speaker after speaker called for Samak to resign.
Flanked by the Thai national flag, huge photos of the king and queen and “most wanted” posters of Thaksin and his wife, protesters said they had no grand scheme to reinvent government. They just want the current government tossed out.
“The Cabinet must resign and they all must be imprisoned,” said Thiwa Thongkaew, a 43-year-old officer worker from the tourist resort of Krabi.