The Thai army, which has stayed above the fray so far in Bangkok's political turmoil, warned yesterday it may be forced to intervene after pre-dawn attacks at an anti-government protest site left three people dead.
Warning the armed groups responsible to stop the attacks, army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said in statement: "If the violence continues then soldiers might need to step out to ensure peace and order."
It may have to use "full force", he said.
Attackers had launched grenades and shot at protesters camped out near Bangkok's Democracy Monument to demand the removal of the Puea Thai party-led caretaker government. It is not clear who is behind the attacks, as both pro- and anti-government supporters are known to have armed militants.
At least 28 people have been killed and hundreds more injured since the political unrest flared up last November.
Asean's second-largest economy has been functioning without a House of Representatives since snap polls were called on Dec 9. The Feb 2 election was sabotaged by protesters trying to subvert the electoral dominance of the Puea Thai party and later annulled by the Constitutional Court.
A re-election planned for July 20 is now very uncertain, further dampening sentiments in an economy expected to have contracted in the first quarter.
Election officials yesterday called for it to be postponed after protesters invaded a meeting between the Election Commission and the caretaker government. "The election on July 20 is no longer possible," the commission's secretary-general Puchong Nutrawong told Agence France- Presse, after caretaker ministers were forced to leave the meeting at the air force headquarters in Bangkok.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, however, proceeded in the afternoon to hold a meeting with the Election Commission in full view of the media.
Anti-government protesters supported by the royalist elite and urban middle class insist Thailand no longer has a prime minister since then caretaker premier Yingluck Shinawatra was expelled by the charter court last week over the illegal transfer of a senior official in 2011. They demand that the Upper House appoint an interim government instead.
Acting caretaker prime minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, who was appointed to take over, maintains that he is in charge until the next election.
Thousands of pro-government "red shirt" supporters massed on the outskirts of Bangkok now are threatening to escalate their fight if an attempt is made to appoint an interim prime minister.
Protesters, whose earlier calls for military intervention had been rebuffed, are now pinning their hopes on the anti-Thaksin senators among the 150-seat Upper House to complete their job of ousting this government. They have camped outside Parliament all week to pressure the senators.
Some legal experts say, however, that there is little, if any, constitutional leeway for an interim prime minister to be appointed under these circumstances.
Associate Professor Somchai Preechasilapakul from Chiang Mai University's law faculty told The Straits Times: "If the senators submit a name of a prime minister to the King, the red shirts can also do the same. Essentially, both don't have the right to do so."