Thai government cracks down on protesters


Bangkok: The Thai government Saturday launched a crackdown on protesters who have seized sections of the capital for weeks in their bid to pave the way for new elections.

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Thousands of soldiers and police were deployed at Phan Fa bridge in the old part of Bangkok and at Ratchaprasong intersection, the capital’s modern hub of shopping arcades and five-star hotels, to clear thousands of “red shirt” protesters.

Since Wednesday, Bangkok and six surrounding provinces have been under emergency law, which bans gatherings of more than five people, allows the government to shut down media outlets deemed a threat to national security and grants officers immunity for their actions in implementing the decree.

Emergency Operations Command spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd said 234 companies of troops were deployed to disperse the demonstrators from the two areas by Saturday evening.

At Phan Fa, helicopters dropped tear gas on the protesters in what appeared to be the first manoeuvre to attack the bridge, where protests have been staged since March 2.

Thousands of troops, led by at least 20 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), had massed in front of the bridge armed with water cannon, batons, tear gas and rifles loaded with rubber bullets.

Dozens of people have already been reported injured, including one foreign reporter, in earlier clashes Saturday as the troops were mobilized to Phan Fa.

On Ratchaprasong Road, the government deployed thousands of riot police to block the eastern entrance to the district.

Thousands of anti-government protesters have been camping out around the Ratchaprasong intersection since April 3. They are led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), which is calling on the government to dissolve parliament and hold new elections.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva Wednesday placed Bangkok and six surrounding provinces under emergency law in an effort to end the protests, which have dragged on for almost a month and have become increasingly aggressive, with damage to the economy mounting.

“Abhisit doesn’t understand that this is a crisis for the country, not a crisis for one street,” said Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former deputy prime minister and close ally of the red shirts.

“People want an election because they want their power back,” he said.

The UDD accuses Abhisit of illegitimately coming to power in December 2008 through a parliamentary reshuffle with the help of the military and judicial system.

The majority of the red shirts are supporters of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been living in self-exile since August 2008.

Thaksin, a former billionaire telecommunications tycoon who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, introduced populist policies to Thailand’s political scene, winning himself a mass following among the rural and urban poor and many other segments of society keen for change.

His autocratic style and self-serving economic policies, however, turned the Bangkok middle class and political elite against him. He was overthrown by a coup Sep 19, 2006.

Thaksin faces a two-year jail term in Thailand on an abuse of power conviction.

While Thaksin has been deemed a ringleader behind the UDD, the red shirt movement has arguably moved beyond him and into a deeper political struggle between Thailand’s privileged and underprivileged classes, according to analysts.