Soldiers, police in riot gear massing near anti-government protest sites in Thai capital

By Grant Peck, AP
Saturday, April 10, 2010

Thai security forces mass near protest sites

BANGKOK — Large groups of soldiers and police in riot gear are massing near to two encampments of anti-government protesters in the Thai capital.

The moves Saturday seemed to indicate that authorities are close to cracking down on the so-called Red Shirt protesters, who have been carrying out disruptive protests in Bangkok for the past month.

The protesters are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament and call new elections.

The deployment came after protesters were pushed back by water cannons and rubber bullets from the headquarters of the 1st Army Region.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BANGKOK (AP) — Emboldened Thai protesters vowed Saturday to ratchet up pressure on the government after their first violent skirmish with soldiers eroded the prime minister’s credibility and exposed concerns about the army’s loyalty.

Police made a failed effort to serve arrest warrants on three protest leaders in the morning, and tensions rose when the demonstrators — who with trucks and motorcycles form a sort of mobile strike force — gathered outside the Bangkok headquarters of the 1st Army Region. The government-run NBT television network reported that water cannons and rubber bullets were used to try to push back the protesters.

The confrontation raised concern at a main rally site, in the heart of Bangkok’s shopping and tourist district, that authorities were planning an imminent raid. Protest leaders handed out damp towels to protect against tear gas, and called for more followers to gather.

Earlier, a leader of the anti-government “Red Shirt” movement said Saturday that the demonstrations would not take time off for next week’s Thai New Year holiday, known as Songkran, as some had expected.

“We will not stop protesting. We will stay on and fight until the Parliament is dissolved,” said prominent protest leader Nattawut Saikua. “If we have to stay until Songkran, we will.”

The protesters have been demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament and call new elections. He vowed late Friday not to bend to the demands.

“It’s not over yet. I’m confident if we stay true to righteousness, we will win the day,” Abhisit said on nationwide television.

Although rumors circulated Saturday that the army would be called in to clear thousands of protesters encamped in Bangkok, Abhisit gave no indication he would veer from his adherence to nonviolent measures.

In a celebratory mood after besting the government day after day, thousands of protesters clapped, swayed and sang along as one of their most radical leaders belted out love songs from a makeshift stage.

Arisman Pongruengrong, a one-time heartthrob pop singer, is among two dozen “Red Shirt” leaders for whom arrest warrants have been issued.

Friday’s confrontation between demonstrators and soldiers — in which unarmed protesters broke into the Thaicom transmission station and briefly restarted a pro-Red Shirt television station that had been shut down by the government under a state of emergency — raised questions about whether soldiers were willing to obey orders to use force.

Several thousand protesters pulled aside barbed wire and climbed over a fence to advance on about 500 soldiers inside the compound.

After scattered hand to hand scuffles, the troops retreated in disarray, some taking positions inside the main Thaicom building. After talks were held between protest leaders and the authorities, agreement was reached to allow People Channel to resume broadcasting, and protesters and soldiers left the site.

But several hours later, more than 4,000 army troops retook the transmission complex and cut off the People Channel’s signal again.

Friday’s humiliating rout of troops and riot police raised questions about how much control Abhisit has over the police and army.

Complaints about Abhisit’s leadership have risen since the so-called Red Shirt protesters, who had established a base last month in the old part of Bangkok, spread to a new encampment in the capital’s tourist district.

Merchants say the boisterous demonstrations have cost them tens of millions of baht (millions of dollars), and luxury hotels near the site have been under virtual siege.

The escalating demonstrations are part of a long-running battle between the mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the ruling elite they say orchestrated the 2006 military coup that removed him from power.

They see the Oxford-educated Abhisit as a symbol of the elite and claim he took office illegitimately in December 2008 with the help of military pressure on Parliament.

On Wednesday, Abhisit’s government declared a state of emergency, allowing it to impose curfews, ban public gatherings, censor media and detain suspects without charge for 30 days.

Arrest warrants have been issued for 27 Red Shirt leaders, but none is known to have been taken into custody.

“The government could be seen as humiliating itself if it fails to enforce the law,” said Associate Professor Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

To effectively enforce the state of emergency, the government needs the cooperation of the military, she said, but it could be that the army is reluctant to use force against the protesters.

Bangkok residents have taken to calling some in the army “watermelon soldiers,” green on the outside but red within, noting the Red Shirts’ signature color.

“The military does not want to become the tool of the government,” she said. “They do not see themselves as the opposing party to the protesters.”

Thailand’s military traditionally has been significant in the nation’s politics, staging almost a score of coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. In 2008, the army undercut the government’s authority by refusing to move against demonstrators who were protesting against a pro-Thaksin government.

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