Party at Prem’s

Clashes erupted Sunday night between police and anti-coup protesters in front of the house of a top advisor to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, prompting the junta to clamp down on public protests ahead of a referendum on the draft constitution scheduled for August 19.

The protest group, known as the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), has held daily demonstrations at a field near Bangkok's royal palace to demand that the coup leaders resign, reinstate the deposed 1997 constitution and hold an election immediately.

On Sunday night, UDD leaders caught police unaware by marching with thousands of supporters to the house of Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, a former army chief and prime minister who is held in high respect by much of the Thai public due to his proximity to the king.

The protesters accused Prem, who was in the compound at the time, of acting as the puppet master behind the coup last September that ousted Premier Thaksin Shinawatra. They called on Prem to resign.

The UDD set up a makeshift stage in front of Prem's house on Sunday afternoon and made speeches for five hours or so, according to witnesses and news reports. But in the evening, after the protesters vowed to permanently camp outside the residence, riot police attempted to break up the gathering and arrest the leaders, prompting demonstrators to hail rocks, chairs, sticks, water bottles and pieces of broken flower pots at the police, who eventually retreated.

Police, whose numbers had swelled to about 2,000, then made two more attempts to arrest the protest leaders, charging at demonstrators with clubs, pepper spray and tear gas. Each time the demonstrators fought back with fists, rocks, sticks, bottles and anything else they could find.

The melee eventually broke up after tear gas grenades pushed the crowds away. Unsurprisingly, both sides blamed the other for instigating the violence.

“A source in the army told us that in the fourth round the military would bring in soldiers with guns to shoot into the air, so that’s why we withdrew from the place,” Weng Tojirakarn, a protest leader, said in an interview. “We didn’t want anybody killed from this event.”

Police said that 200 officers and 70 protesters were hurt in the clashes, several seriously. Authorities confirmed that six protesters were arrested and charged with “causing chaos, obstructing the work of authorities, and damage to state property,” the Associated Press reported. Police were also seeking arrest warrants for eight or so other UDD leaders, including Weng.

It’s unclear why authorities attempted to break up the protest this time as many similar protests had occurred earlier without incident. Some observers said the army may have been spooked by UDD statements that the group would camp out in front of Prem’s house — an unacceptable scenario for generals who swear allegiance to the royal advisor.

Although Prem is supposed to be non-political as a privy councilor, coup opponents blast the 86-year-old for a series of speeches he gave a year ago in which he donned full military garb and said soldiers should be loyal to the king instead of the government. Many observers said the speeches set the stage for the coup.

“We always went before with huge amounts of people but the police never reacted like this,” Weng said. “It shows we hit at the heart of the junta. We hit Mr Prem just to expose that he is the mastermind behind the coup.”

The publicity may provide a spark to a movement led mostly by ex-Thai Rak Rai Party members that was struggling to stay relevant as preparations began for the August 19 referendum and a general election later this year. Bangkok’s middle class has largely supported the coup and the military has blocked rural folk from traveling to the capital to participate in the rallies, as martial law still remains in place in a large part of the country.

“This is the first time the middle class has supported a coup d’etat,” Jaran Ditapichai, a member of the National Human Rights Commission and UDD leader, said on Friday. “We have to work peacefully to stir up the people. We believe that things will change when people realize they want to live a freer life without the military holding the power.”

The melee raised eyebrows in a capital where such clashes are rare even though protests, tanks on the street and even small bombs are quite common. Ever since publisher Sondhi Limthongkul launched a street protest campaign to oust deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra in November 2005, fears of violence have proved unfounded.

Indeed, the very sight of protestors clashing with police immediately draws comparisons to the Bloody May incident of 1992 in which soldiers started shooting and killing peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators.

Still, it doesn’t appear as if the violence on Sunday night will boost sympathy for the protesters. To the contrary, a headline from The Nation screamed “Anti-coup mob goes berserk.” Investors also shrugged off the incident, with the main index jumping 1.42 percent on the day after falling in early trading.

Coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin went to Prem’s residence Monday and apologized for allowing the protesters to come so close to his house. “I met him and said sorry to him this morning for failing to take good care of him,” Sonthi said, according to The Nation newspaper. “He said he did not expect that the protesters would have done that much to him because he has been working for the country for years. Most of all, he loves the country and is very loyal to the monarchy.”

Prasong Soonsiri, the lead constitution drafter who claimed to have helped plan the coup pinned the blame on Thaksin. “These people are being used by wealthy people,” he said, The Nation also reported. “I heard [Thaksin] flew to Hong Kong two days ago. I really wonder why he keeps saying he loves the country—his behavior shows the opposite.”

Police Chief Seripisut Temiyavet said Monday that anti-coup protestors will no longer be allowed to leave Sanam Luang, the park they frequently occupy near the palace. In addition, after Sunday’s fight protest leaders vowed to continue fighting.

“We are very careful about our protests and every time we say we must follow a nonviolent line strictly,” said Weng. “Once we start using a violent method we will lose because the other side has guns and the law. We don’t have either.”

But despite the talk of peace, he acknowledged that emotions run high in mob situations and violence could erupt at any time. With one battle over, the next one doesn’t seem very far away.