The Thai activist who led a blockade of the kingdom’s main airports last year was shot and wounded in the head Friday in an assassination attempt the government said was aimed at inciting fresh unrest.
Doctors said that Sondhi Limthongkul, founder of the ”Yellow Shirts” royalist movement that helped topple former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, was out of danger after an operation to remove a bullet fragment from his skull.
Gunmen wielding automatic weapons fired about 100 rounds at his car in a dawn attack, wounding Sondhi as well as his driver and an aide, a local police commander said.
The attack will heighten tensions between Sondhi’s Yellow Shirts and Thaksin’s rival Red Shirts, who took to the streets of Bangkok this week in violent battles with security forces.
The ambush took place as Sondhi, the leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) which seized Bangkok’s two airports for nine days last year, was on his way to record a programme for his private television station.
”At least two attackers followed Sondhi’s car, overtook it and sprayed it with about 100 rounds of gunfire from AK-47 and M-16s,” said the police commander, Colonel King Kwaengwisatchaicharn.
”The motive for the attack is still under investigation,” he said.
Hospital authorities said that 61-year-old Sondhi was out of danger after a two-hour operation to remove the bullet fragment that embedded in his skull and brain membrane, but would remain in intensive care for a week.
”Sondhi is now safe, in a good condition and able to talk,” said Chaiwan Charoenchoketavee, director of the Vajira Medical College.
Doctors said Sondhi’s driver was critically wounded with gunshots to his head, chest and arm, while his aide suffered minor injuries.
Government spokesperson Panitan Wattanayagorn said the attack was an attempt to create more trouble in Thailand, where protests by the Red Shirts left at least two dead and 123 injured before being shut down by security forces on Tuesday.
”The act took place while the state of emergency is still in effect. It was an attempt to create unrest,” Panitan said. Bangkok and surrounding areas remain under a state of emergency declared on Sunday.
PAD spokesperson Parnthep Pourpongpan said the group did not know who was responsible for the attack, but was convinced it was politically motivated.
”We will wait for the police investigation and follow the justice system,” he said.
Thailand has been beset by four years of turmoil, with mass protests wreaking havoc with daily life and occasionally erupting into violence.
At the heart of the dispute is Thaksin, a polarising populist adored by his mainly poor supporters and loathed by Sondhi’s PAD and its backers among Bangkok’s elite in the palace, military and bureaucracy.
Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, Thailand analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the assassination attempt underscored Thailand’s deep political divide which cuts across geographical and class lines.
”There’s a chance we are going to see more of this vigilante activity,” she said. ”When it becomes a fight between two groups of people it’s going to become worrisome. We are getting closer to a state of civil war.”
The PAD held huge rallies in the streets in 2006 that opened the way for the military to remove Thaksin from power in a coup.
Thaksin supporters are pushing for the current premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva, to resign and call fresh elections, saying he came to power illegitimately in the wake of a court decision that ousted Thaksin’s allies.
Anti-government rallies shut down a summit of Asian leaders in the kingdom last weekend, prompting the government to cancel Thaksin’s passport and hunt for protest leaders, aggravating allegations of double standards.
In the face of criticism that the Yellow Shirts have gone unpunished for the airports blockade, which caused huge inconvenience and economic losses, Abhisit said he would speed up efforts to prosecute leaders of those protests.
”There is no double standard on arrests or investigations into the cases. The government will do the same with anyone who causes similar problems,” he said.
Media mogul Sondhi was once friends with Thaksin and at one point declared him Thailand’s ”best prime minister ever” — but then began a campaign against him in late 2005.
Thaksin said Sondhi wanted revenge after the media tycoon invested heavily in a new television station that was blocked by regulatory hurdles.
Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon, is currently living in exile to escape a jail term for corruption. — AFP