BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's government on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas to cope with protests that have stirred up violent attacks, adding to the country's monthslong sense of crisis.
Labor Minister Chalerm Yubumrung said that the measure will continue for 60 days beginning Wednesday, but did not announce any specific actions.
The decree greatly expands the power of security forces to issue orders and search, arrest and detain people, with limited judicial and parliamentary oversight. The areas covered had already been placed under tougher-than-normal security under the country's Internal Security Act.
The state of emergency follows increasing attacks at protest sites for which the government and the protesters blame each other. These include grenades thrown in daylight and drive-by shootings. On Sunday, 28 people were wounded when two grenades were tossed near one of several stages set up by protesters at key Bangkok intersections.
Another grenade attack on a protest march last Friday killed one man and wounded dozens. No arrests have been made in either attack. Nine people have been killed and hundreds hurt in violence since the protests began in early November. The protesters escalated their tactics this month with a threat to "shut down" the capital to prevent the government from functioning.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said the government, through a newly established Center for Maintaining Peace and Order, "will take care of the situation according to international practices, which is something we have always said. Primarily, we have to use the principle of negotiation first."
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, in speeches afterward to followers, vowed to continue demonstrating and questioned whether the declaration was justified, saying the protesters had been peaceful. "Come and get us!" he cried.
"Whatever they warn us not to do, we will do," he declared. "We will march on the routes they ban. ... If they order us not to rally, we will be here indefinitely. If they ask us not to use loudspeakers at night, we will just keep going 24 hours a day at every stage!"
The protesters have been demanding Yingluck's resignation to make way for an appointed government to implement reforms to fight corruption. Yingluck called elections for Feb. 2 but the protesters are insisting they not be held.
The opposition Democrat Party, closely aligned with the protesters, is boycotting the polls. The announcement of the emergency decree said the elections would proceed as planned.
The protesters charge that Yingluck's government is carrying on the practices of Thaksin Shinawatra, her billionaire brother who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, by using the family fortune and state funds to influence voters and cement its power. Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006 after protests accused him of corruption and abuse of power. He fled into exile in 2008 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a conflict of interest conviction.
Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said "the protesters have constantly violated the law, especially in closing down government offices and banks and harassment against civil servants to prevent them from working."
He added that Suthep's group "had gone overboard, and attacks were carried out by ill-intentioned people, causing people to be injured and killed, affecting the country's stability."
In Washington, the State Department said the U.S. strongly condemns increasing violence in Bangkok, and it urged Thai authorities to investigate the attacks and bring those responsible to justice.
"It is unfortunate that the situation has gotten to the point where the government felt it was necessary to invoke an Emergency Decree. We urge all sides to exercise restraint," spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday. "We encourage all involved to commit to sincere dialogue to resolve political differences peacefully and democratically."
Human Rights Watch criticized the emergency decree for allowing excessive use of power and possible human rights violations.
Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for the New York-based group, said the security situation had not become so bad that police could not perform their duties, and the decree could be seen as having been implemented for political rather than public safety reasons.
As many as 200,000 people have joined the biggest of the opposition protests in the past two months. The demonstrators are mainly middle class, and are generally backed by big business and the financial elite. They include a large contingent of people from southern Thailand, a stronghold of the Democrat Party.
Thaksin and his political allies have easily won every national election since 2001, with Yingluck's Pheu Thai party winning a majority of lower house seats in 2011. Thaksin draws support from the lower and lower middle classes, mostly rural people who benefited from his populist policies.
The last time the emergency decree was invoked in Bangkok was when pro-Thaksin "Red Shirt" activists staged their own disruptive protests in the capital in 2010 against a Democrat-led government. Suthep was then deputy prime minister and headed the agency overseeing its application. At least 90 people, mostly protesters, died in violence which peaked when soldiers in combat gear swept demonstrators from the streets. Suthep has been charged with murder for his role in the crackdown.
There are fears the current protesters are trying to incite violence to prompt the military to intervene. The powerful army commander, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has repeatedly said he does not want his forces drawn into the conflict, but has also refused to rule out the possibility of another coup.
"The military will support the government's working by providing our force as it is needed," deputy army spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree said Tuesday night.
The trigger for the latest protests was an ill-advised attempt late last year by ruling party lawmakers to push through a bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return from overseas exile.
Since then, demonstrators have steadily escalated their pressure, attacking Yingluck's office at government house and the city's police headquarters for several days in December with slingshots and homemade rocket launchers, and periodically occupying the compounds of several government agencies.
Even if the polls are held, Parliament may fail to achieve a quorum and be unable to convene because the protesters have blocked candidates' registrations in several provinces. It is also possible that the courts, which have consistently shown an anti-Thaksin bias, could stage a "judicial coup" that would force Yingluck from office for alleged corruption or violations of the constitution.
Associated Press writer Jinda Wedel in Bangkok and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.