Anti-government protesters in Thailand demand release of leaders


Bangkok: Hundreds of anti-government protesters Friday defied emergency law in the Thai capital to call for the release of their colleagues arrested in a crackdown four months ago.

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Sixteen leaders of the movement have been detained since May 19 for staging a 69-day demonstration that ended with 91 people dead and parts of Bangkok in flames.

About a thousand protesters marched to the Bangkok Remand Centre Friday to lay roses at the front gate of the prison.

“We will come back every week until our friends are freed,” said Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), better known as the red shirts.

The red shirts plan to hold protests in Bangkok and the northern city of Chiang Mai Sunday to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the bloodless 2006 coup that toppled their leader, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The coup was seen by the UDD as a step backward for Thai democracy and an entrenchment of the political elite, monarchy, military, bureaucracy, old money and established political parties, such as the Democrats, who lead the current government.

Red-shirt demonstrations in April 2009 and from March to May of this year were put down by the government with support from the army.

With most of the UDD leaders in jail, the pro-Thaksin opposition party Puea Thai in disarray and Bangkok still under emergency law, few expected the red-shirt movement to regain its momentum soon.

“At this stage, I think the establishment is ensconced without a challenge,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “But the red shirts have not gone away. The movement is still a significant force.”

On May 19, the Thai army cracked down on the UDD leadership and thousands of its supporters who had occupied the heart of Bangkok for six weeks, demanding that the government dissolve parliament and call new elections.

When the troops moved in, the UDD leadership surrendered. Their arrests sparked a looting and arson rampage in the upmarket Ratchaprasong shopping district, a response that damaged the movement’s credibility among residents of Bangkok.

Altogether, 91 people died in street battles, bombings and sniper fire from April 10 to May 19, and more than 1,800 were injured. Of the dead, 11 were soldiers or police.

The top UDD leaders have been detained at the Bangkok Remand Centre since the crackdown, facing a series of charges, including terrorism.

Bangkok has been under emergency decree since April 7, allowing authorities to arrest suspects for up to three months without charge and banning all political gatherings of more than five people.

The government has yet to lift emergency law in the capital although it has done so in most provinces.