Students wounded in Thai protest

BANGKOK, Thailand — Thai police warned students today to avoid street protests after a gunman shot and wounded two students demonstrating against the embattled prime minister, raising new fears of violence in the country's tense political crisis.

The attack came after Samak proposed a national referendum Thursday to decide his political fate, an unconventional compromise that was dismissed by critics as a stalling tactic that will prolong the unrest.

About 100 students were marching to demonstrate outside of Samak's home in the capital, Bangkok, late Thursday when an unidentified gunman on the back of a motorcycle opened fire on the crowd, said police chief Col. Somsak Bunsaeng of the Ladprao station in northeast Bangkok.

One of the students was shot in his left leg, the other in his left arm. Police said they were hospitalized but were not seriously hurt.

Anti-government protesters have occupied Samak's official headquarters, Government House, for 11 days, vowing not to leave until he resigns.

The protests are led by a loosely knit group of royalists, wealthy and middle-class urban residents, and union activists. The alliance wants Parliament to be revamped so most lawmakers are appointed rather than elected, arguing that Thailand's impoverished rural majority is too susceptible to vote buying.

Samak imposed a state of emergency Tuesday after his opponents and supporters clashed near Government House in rioting that left one person dead and dozens wounded.

Police said they told students late Thursday evening that after the shooting that under the state of emergency their protest was not allowed, said police spokesman Surapol Tuantong.

"The situation is very politically charged. Right now, it's not a good idea to gather," he said. "There are many parties involved and when something like this happens, it's hard to find the perpetrators."

Shooting incidents are rare in Bangkok, which was calm today with business going on as usual in most of the city. Anti-government protests have mostly been isolated to the area around Government House.

Samak hopes his proposed referendum will allow him to keep his job while placating the People's Alliance for Democracy, which has vowed to continue its anti-government campaign.

The referendum will ask the public to choose between the alliance and the government, but many analysts say a simple yes-no vote is insufficient in the face of a complicated political crisis.

The protest alliance ridiculed the plan, saying Samak will manipulate the vote, just as they allege he did during general elections his party won in December 2007.

"The referendum is an attempt by Mr. Samak to buy himself some more time in the office," Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon and one of the protest leaders, told The Associated Press.

The protest group has already had a hand in bringing down one government, when it staged demonstrations in 2006 that paved the way for the bloodless coup that removed then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office.

The protesters say Samak is Thaksin's stooge and is running the government for him by proxy while the ousted prime minister is in exile in Britain.

The government's failure to resolve the deadlock has raised fears of an economic downturn, especially in Thailand's crucial tourist industry, which is particularly susceptible to concerns about political instability.

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