The attack took place Saturday night in Trat province, where about 500 protesters demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra were holding a rally near food stalls where people were dining. Trat is about 180 miles (300 kilometers) east of the capital, Bangkok.
The attack was the latest in a string of protest-related violent incidents roiling Thailand over the past three months, in which at least 16 people have been killed and hundreds hurt. The protesters want Yingluck to quit to make way for an appointed interim government to implement anti-corruption reforms, but she has refused.
Thai media reported that as many as three people were killed in the violence in Trat and that several others were in critical condition, but National Security Council chief lieutenant General Paradorn Pattanathuabutr said there was just one fatality—an 8-year-old girl. A nurse at Trat Hospital, Nantiya Thientawatchai, said the girl who died was 5 years old. The reason for the discrepancy was not clear.
Police Lieutenant Thanabhum Newanit said unidentified assailants in a pickup shot into the crowd and two explosive devices went off. It was not clear whether the protest group, which uses armed guards, fought back. He and other officials said that about three dozen people were hurt.
Both supporters and opponents of the protesters, as well as police, have been victims of the political violence, which before Saturday was mostly confined to Bangkok. On Friday night, six people were hurt when unknown attackers threw a grenade into a protest crowd in the capital.
A spokesman for the protesters, Akanat Promphan, described the attack in Trat as “a massacre of innocents” that was “planned and organized terror.”
“The authorities must quickly find those terrorists responsible. Yingluck must show responsibility. Otherwise, we can only assume the government and…Yingluck’s involvement in this atrocity,” he said.
Both sides in the ongoing political dispute have blamed the other for instigating violence.
“At this point we do not know who was behind the attack, but there are several factors to take into account in the investigation,” Paradorn said.
He said the protesters in Trat have been rallying for a long time, “so they might have caused disturbance to others,” adding that the “area is controlled by groups that are affiliated with the anti-government side.”
“The prime minister has expressed concern and urged the national police chief to speed up the investigation,” Paradorn said.
Thailand has seen sometimes violent political conflict since 2006, when then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, was ousted by a military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin’s supporters and opponents have since taken to the streets for extended periods in a power struggle.
In 2010, pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts” occupied part of Bangkok for two months. When the army was called in to control them, more than 90 people were killed in violent confrontations.
The Red Shirts have mostly kept a low profile during the current political unrest, but as Yingluck faces what her supporters feel are unfair court rulings loosening her grip on power, there are fears they will take to the streets again. The courts are widely seen as being biased against Thaksin’s political machine.
Thaksin and his allies have won every national election since 2001, with his sister taking office in 2011 with a majority of parliamentary seats.
Yingluck called early elections to try to reaffirm her mandate, but the protesters disrupted February’s polls, which have yet to be completed, leaving Thailand with a caretaker government. She also faces several legal challenges that could oust her from office.
Opponents of Thaksin, a billionaire, claim he unfairly uses his money and populist policies to dominate Thai politics.