Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on Wednesday, handing the army broad powers to restore order after anti-government protesters broke into Parliament, forcing some lawmakers to flee by helicopter.
Other lawmakers scaled the compound's walls to escape the most chaotic protest in several weeks of demonstrations by a group demanding Abhisit dissolve the government and call elections within 15 days. He has offered to do so by the end of the year.
"The government has tried its best to enforce the law, but violations of the law have increased," Abhisit said in a televised statement that interrupted regular programming. "Our main goal is to bring the country back to normal and make our law sacred once again." He did not spell out how the emergency decree will be applied.
The government already had placed Bangkok under the strict Internal Security Act.
But a state of emergency includes more sweeping powers. It gives the military authority to restore order and allows the government to impose curfews, ban public gatherings of more than five people, censor and ban media from disseminating news that "causes panic." It also allows security officials to detain suspects without charge for up to 30 days.
The so-called Red Shirt protesters, who contend Abhisit came to power illegitimately, have been camped in Bangkok since March 12 and have ignored all other decrees for them to stop their demonstrations.
The movement — known formally as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship — is made up of supporters of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the 2006 coup that removed him from power.
His overthrow set off years of political turmoil that has deeply divided Thai society, and the protest leaders have said they are waging a class war, saying the country's traditional elite — including the Oxford-educated Abhisit — is impervious to the plight of the largely rural and impoverished majority. The most striking aspect of the rift may be the sense of empowerment engendered in the poor, who have long been used to kowtowing to their better-off countrymen.
Red Shirt leaders responded to the emergency decree by telling protesters to stay put and wait for the military to arrive. They have called a major rally for Friday.
Veera Muksikapong, a protest leader speaking to a rally in Bangkok's central shopping district, directed a message to the army: "If you want to meet an army of nonviolent people, please come here. But I believe that ultimately the military will not listen to the government's order."
Foes of prime minister
Abhisit has become the target of harsh criticism from businesspeople and Bangkok's middle class for failing to take strong measures to end the protests. He has tried negotiations, and has had security forces pull back from possible confrontations.
Abhisit's government is backed by the powerful military, but some have suggested the security forces are sympathetic to the protesters' cause and are reluctant to get tough on them.
On Wednesday, a soldier carrying an M-16 was chased out of the Parliament building by a lawmaker a from a pro-Thaksin party, shouting: "This is the Parliament. Why are you carrying a gun!" Once outside, the soldier was wrestled to the ground by Red Shirts who seized his rifle and a pistol. The protesters then turned the guns over to authorities.
One of the most radical protest leaders, Arisman Pongruengrong, led a small group in smashing through the compound's gate and rushing into the Parliament building while Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and other lawmakers were still inside. But the protesters later withdrew from the building at the request of opposition legislators, their political allies.
A government security agency, known by the acronym CAPO, sent a Black Hawk helicopter carrying five soldiers armed with M-16 rifles to fly the ministers and lawmakers to safety, the agency said in a statement.
Abhisit had left Parliament before the break-in to attend a scheduled meeting. An aide, Sirichoke Sopa, said the prime minister has canceled a scheduled trip to Washington for an April 12-13 international nuclear summit.
Arisman, a former pop singer, orchestrated the takeover of a regional conference last April, forcing the evacuation of Asian leaders by helicopters and boats from a Thai seaside resort.
Protests, which began in Bangkok's historic district where most of the government is based, expanded to a second location on Saturday along the city's upscale shopping boulevard, where malls remained closed for a fifth day.
Merchants have complained that the boisterous demonstrations have cost them billions of baht (tens of millions of dollars), and many luxury hotels in the commercial center have been under virtual siege since Saturday.
Charnvit Kasetsiri, one of the country's most prominent historians, called the situation "a game of brinkmanship," with neither side wanting to be accused of initiating violence.
"It's about who's going to blink or make the first mistake, and whoever makes the first mistake will inevitably lose," Charnvit said. "Both sides are very cautious. Both were worried about being the first to incite violence."