By THOMAS FULLER
Published: December 1, 2013
BANGKOK — Thailand’s week of antigovernment demonstrations entered a dangerous and volatile phase on Sunday after shootings involving rival political camps left at least four people dead and more than 50 wounded.
Many areas of Bangkok, the sprawling metropolis that is a major hub of commerce and travel in Southeast Asia, remained unaffected by the demonstrations. But the shootings and the increasingly provocative moves by protesters spread fears that unrest could move beyond the pockets of the capital where protests — and violence — have raged.
As protesters traveled through the city by motorcycle and on foot Sunday, vowing to shut down additional government buildings, Bangkok’s largest shopping malls, which normally teem with visitors on weekends, hastily announced that they were closing their doors for the day.
Nearly 3,000 soldiers began arriving in the capital to shore up key government buildings.
Protesters are pursuing the quixotic goal of ridding the country of the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire tycoon and former prime minister whose political party has captured the allegiance of voters in the countryside, winning every election since 2001. The protesters say they are frustrated with the dominance of Mr. Thaksin and are disillusioned with the current democratic system. They have proposed an alternative to the country’s democracy, an ill-defined people’s council made up of representatives from many professions.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who is Mr. Thaksin’s youngest sister, repeatedly said over the weekend that she was open to discussions with protesters but that she would stand firm.
“I will remain here,” she told reporters Saturday, her voice cracking with emotion. “I will not flee anywhere. I may be a woman, but I have the courage to face all possible scenarios.”
After raiding and occupying the Finance Ministry last week, protesters on Sunday sought to capture Ms. Yingluck’s office. Police have fortified the area with concrete barriers and razor wire, which protesters partly dismantled under the watch of riot police officers who fired tear gas into the crowd.
The police pleaded with protesters before launching tear gas, according to The Associated Press.
“We’re all brothers and sisters,” the police shouted through a loudspeaker, according to The A.P. “Please don’t try to come in!”
Embassies in Bangkok issued warnings to their citizens Sunday, many ratcheting up the relatively mild caution they advised last week. The French Embassy sent a message that advised Bangkok residents to avoid “any unnecessary trips.”
Over the past week, protesters have broken down the gates to the army headquarters, cut power to the police headquarters and occupied parts of a large government complex that houses Thailand’s equivalent of the F.B.I.
On Sunday, they massed outside of television stations around Bangkok and demanded that the stations, including one owned by the military, switch their signal to a network associated with the protests.
Protesters also raided a state-owned telecommunications office, temporarily cutting Internet service to thousands of people and shutting down for several hours the website of the state carrier, Thai Airways.
Led by a former deputy prime minister, Suthep Thaugsuban, the protesters are a diverse group, ranging from upper-class Thais who have attended rallies in high heels and office attire to rubber farmers from southern Thailand who have long been allied with the opposition Democratic Party, which itself is affiliated with the protests.
The shootings on Saturday and in the early hours of Sunday occurred near a stadium packed with tens of thousands of government supporters known as red shirts.
Red shirts traveling to the stadium were attacked by young men who wore the symbols of the antigovernment demonstrators — whistles and arm bands with the national flag. Those attacks led to shootings between both camps.
The protests are the biggest since 2010, when the military dispersed tens of thousands of protesters occupying Bangkok’s commercial district, a violent crackdown that left more than 90 people dead.
Thailand has suffered seven years of on-and-off unrest since Mr. Thaksin, who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, was removed from power in a military coup.