Thailand government warns protesters of strong action


Bangkok: The Thai government Saturday told tens of thousands of protesters to leave a posh Bangkok shopping district by 9 p.m. or they would impose the draconian Internal Security Act.

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“By 9 we will tell them our conditions,” government spokesman Panitan Wattanayakorn said. “If they refuse to leave there leaders will be prosecuted and subject to arrest for one year under the Internal Security Act.”

The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), also called the red shirts for their favoured colour of apparel, Saturday morning blocked off Ratchaprasong Road, a popular shopping area and hub for luxury hotels in Bangkok, to bring their protest to the rich centre of the capital.

“This is a good strategy,” UDD co-leader Veera Musigapong said. “We will stay here without limit until the government dissolves parliament.”

The demonstration prompted dozens of departments stores and restaurants to close their doors to the public.

Thai Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij estimated that 10 billion baht ($312.5 million) would be lost in forfeiting sales and hotel room rents if the protest was allowed to continue in the Ratchaprasong district for more than a week.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva charged that the protest, which has been underway for almost three weeks, had gone too far.

“They have inconvenienced the people of Bangkok beyond what the law allows,” Abhisit said.

The UDD has been holding demonstrations in Bangkok since March 12 and has given Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva until April 12 to dissolve parliament.

To date both the protesters and authorities have avoided the use of violence, but as the demonstration drags on a showdown seems likely.

“If Abhisit makes the wrong decision, everything could go from bad to worse,” UDD co-leader Weng Tojirakarn warned. “It could maybe lead to civil war.”

The red shirts have accused Abhisit of being a puppet of the “ammat”, or bureaucratic elite, while painting themselves as the champions of the poor and downtrodden, fighting to build a more equitable Thai society.

Efforts to end the conflict via negotiations between Abhisit and the red shirt leaders have failed. While Abhisit has vowed to dissolve parliament within nine months, the UDD has insisted that he do so by April 12, before the Thai traditional new year festival begins.

Abhisit has said he needs nine months to fix the economy, amend the constitution’s election laws and pass the budget. September 30 marks the end of Thailand’s fiscal year when a new budget must be passed and a politically vital military reshuffle is approved.

Controlling the appointment of the next army commander-in-chief is deemed a crucial step for the stability of the next elected government.

The current head of the army, General Anupong Paochinda, is a strong supporter of Abhisit and played a role in the 2006 coup that overthrew the red shirts’ political patron, fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin, although living in exile since August 2008 to avoid a two-year jail sentence on an abuse of power conviction, is the de-facto leader of the Puea Thai opposition party and a key ringleader of the red shirts.

While prime minister from 2001 to 2006, he introduced a host of populist policies that improved the livelihoods of the poor and gave them a sense of empowerment and entitlement.

“When Thaksin was prime minister, the economy was good, but as soon as Abhisit came in, the economy turned lousy,” said Songbat, a 57-year-old saleswoman from Samut Prakan near Bangkok.

Abhisit came to power in December 2008 at the peak of the global economic crisis.

Although the protesters have shunned violence to date, there has been a spate of explosions and rocket grenade attacks concurrent with the demonstrations and directed at government and pro-government targets.