Thai protesters force closure of hundreds of polling stations

Vast majority of voting stations stay open and polling peaceful in national elections

Sun, Feb 2, 2014, 10:31

“This is not a fair election,” said Ampai Pittajit (65), a retired civil servant helping to block ballot boxes in the Bangkok district of Ratchathewi. “I’m doing this because I want reforms before an election. I understand those who are saying this is violating their rights. But what about our rights to be heard?”

Fears of violence were high after a gun battle erupted at a busy Bangkok intersection between government supporters and protesters trying to block delivery of ballots. Among the injured was a reporter for the local Daily News newspaper and American photojournalist, James Nachtwey, whose leg was grazed by a bullet.

The exchange of fire was the latest flare-up in a months-long campaign by protesters to overthrow Ms Yingluck’s government, which they accuse of corruption. The violence crystallised the power struggle that has devolved into a battle of wills between the government and protesters - and those caught in between, who insist on their right to vote.

Under heavy police security, Ms Yingluck cast her vote at a polling station in northeastern Bangkok, cheered on by supporters.

“Today is an important day,” she told reporters. “I would like to invite Thai people to come out and vote to uphold democracy.”

Voting was not as easy in other parts of Bangkok.

At one of the more volatile districts north of the capital, voters in Din Daeng scuffled with protesters and hurled bottles at each other under heavy police security. An Associated Press reporter saw a protester fire a gunshot after angry voters tried to push their way past a blockade. There were no injuries reported.

Dozens of voters demanding their right to vote broke into the Din Daeng district office, which was unable to distribute ballots to the neighbourhood’s voting stations.

“We want an election. We are Thais,” said Narong Meephol, a 63-year-old Bangkok resident, waving his identification card. “We are here to exercise our rights.”

Elsewhere, one of Thailand’s more colourful politicians Chuwit Kamolvisit, an independent candidate, got into a brawl with a group of protesters.

“They tried to attack me while I was trying to go vote,” said Mr Chuwit, a tycoon who made a fortune operating massage parlours before turning to politics as an anti-corruption campaigner.

Since protests began three months ago, at least 10 people have been killed and nearly 600 wounded.

Police said more than 100,000 officers were deployed nationwide, while the army was putting 5,000 soldiers into Bangkok to boost security. More than 48 million people are registered to vote.