Southeast Asia Bureau Chief
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May 14, 2010

Thai troops advance on red shirt protest checkpoint

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets towards protesters on Friday following overnight fighting that killed one and wounded 11, including a rogue general, as a two-month political crisis deepened.

A foreign journalist was shot during the afternoon skirmishes, a Reuters witness said. No other details were immediately available.

May 14, 2010

Protest crackdown sparks fighting in Bangkok

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Violence flared in the Thai capital on Friday as troops confronted groups of protesters around a major commercial district following overnight fighting that killed one and wounded nine, including a rogue general.

At dawn, protesters and troops skirmished in the usually bustling business area near Lumpini Park and Sathorn Road. Soldiers were earlier seen using tear gas and water cannon at Nana intersection, packed with shops and racy go-go bars.

May 13, 2010

Thai protesters seek reinforcements, ignore calls to leave

BANGKOK, May 13 (Reuters) – Thousands of Thai anti-government protesters were seeking reinforcements on Thursday after ignoring a midnight deadline to end two months of street rallies that have sparked Thailand’s deadliest political violence in 18 years.

Leaders of the mostly rural and urban poor protesters urged supporters to join their barricaded encampment in Bangkok’s commercial district after authorities abruptly postponed plans to cut power and water to the area following outcry from residents.

"We came as lions, we must go back as lions," Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader, told cheering supporters late on Wednesday. "Please come out and help us man our forts."

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva Abhisit is under enormous pressure to end the five-week occupation of the shopping district by protesters who say he lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote 17 months ago.

"With another day of another futile ultimatum and no fruitful action, Abhisit risks losing any credibility he has left," Nattaya Chetchotiros, assistant news editor at The Bangkok Post, wrote in a column.

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Abhisit’s threats follow the unravelling of a government peace plan proposed last week to end a political crisis that has killed 29 people, paralysed parts of Bangkok and slowed growth in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.

Both sides appear to be running out of options, raising the risk of a violent confrontation and flummoxing investors in one of Southeast Asia’s most promising emerging markets.

"The markets have no idea what to make of the situation. It seems like we’re heading back to square one," said Sukit Udomsirikul, a senior analyst at brokerage Siam City Securities.

"It’s obvious it’s more difficult than they thought in terms of how to disperse the protesters," Sukit added. "A resolution to the crisis looks far off."

Foreign investors have turned negative since violence flared in April and have sold ($584 million) in Thai shares in the past six sessions, cutting their net buying so far this year to $607.6 million as of Wednesday.

FISSURES IN PROTEST MOVEMENT

Disparate views among protest leaders — from radical former communists to academics and aspiring lawmakers — make it difficult to reach consensus. Many face criminal charges for defying an emergency decree and some face terrorism charges carrying a maximum penalty of death.

Several harbour political ambitions and need to appease rank-and-file supporters. Others fear ending the protest now would be a one-way ticket to jail. Some hardliners advocate stepping up the protests to win the fight once and for all.

"Most people want this to end but they are sceptical because the government cannot guarantee our safety," Korbkaew Pikulthong, another protest leader, told Reuters. "The problem is some of us face severe charges and the government shows no inclination to be fair to us. A few want to fight on because we have come so far."

On Wednesday, Abhisit cancelled a proposal to hold elections on Nov. 14 under his "national reconciliation" plan and called off further talks with the protesters.

Despite its reversal of plans to cut off power and water to the area packed with hotels, embassies, businesses, high-end apartments and two public hospitals, authorities say they will start diverting some transportation from the district.

The red-shirted protesters, mostly supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup, have said they would only disperse if a deputy prime minister faces criminal charges over a deadly April clash between troops and protesters. (Additional reportiing by Ploy Ten Kate; Editing by Nick Macfie)



May 11, 2010

Thai protesters refuse to pack up, push new demands

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai anti-government protesters remained camped on the streets of Bangkok on Tuesday, refusing to end a two-month demonstration until a deputy prime minister faces charges over a clash with troops in April that killed 25 people.

The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), better known as the “red shirts,” accepted a timetable for a November 14 election but set a new condition that Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban be formally charged.

May 10, 2010

Thai protesters refuse to leave, push new demands

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai anti-government protesters refused on Monday to end a crippling two-month street demonstration until the government accepted responsibility for a clash with troops in April that killed 25 people.

The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), better known as the “red shirts” for their trademark attire, said Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban must face criminal charges before they will leave central Bangkok.

May 3, 2010

Divisive Thaksin looms over Thai protests

BANGKOK (Reuters) – To the rural masses at the heart of Thailand’s “red shirt” protest movement, he is a mold-breaking prime minister, the first leader to pay attention to the needs of millions living beyond Bangkok’s bright lights.

To the educated, urban middle-classes and royalist elite, however, Thaksin Shinawatra is a crony capitalist who plundered the economy and perverted democracy for the benefit of his family and friends while in power from 2001 until a 2006 military coup.

Apr 29, 2010

Scenarios: How is Thailand’s crisis likely to play out?

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Predicting the next step in Thailand’s political crisis requires some bravery after seven weeks of street protests, deadly clashes, a department store blockade and grenade attacks, with few signs of compromise.

Attitudes have hardened on both sides since troops and protesters clashed in Bangkok on April 10, killing 25 people and wounding more than 800 during a chaotic army crackdown that has intensified a five-year political crisis.

Apr 29, 2010

How is Thailand’s crisis likely to play out?

BANGKOK, April 29 (Reuters) – Predicting the next step in Thailand’s political crisis requires some bravery after seven weeks of street protests, deadly clashes, a department store blockade and grenade attacks, with few signs of compromise.

Attitudes have hardened on both sides since troops and protesters clashed in Bangkok on April 10, killing 25 people and wounding more than 800 during a chaotic army crackdown that has intensified a five-year political crisis.

Following are scenarios about what could happen next with tens of thousands of the red-shirted supporters of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra still on the streets.

RED SHIRT PROTESTERS PROVOKE FURTHER VIOLENT CLASHES

High casualties and the possibility of a failed military operation could be enough to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down, setting in motion a snap election — the ultimate demand of the red shirts.

With that in mind, the protesters are likely to keep trying to provoke the military or spark a clash with rival pro-government protesters, drawing upon shadowy militants led by retired generals whose presence among the red shirts has added a dangerous element to their bid for elections.

Some protesters are believed to be armed with assault rifles and M-79 grenades, both of which were used at an April 10 clash with the army that killed 25 people. The government accuses them of leading the grenade attacks on April 22 that killed one person and wounded 88 in Bangkok’s business district. Army sources say they think this group has stockpiled weapons at the protest site.

The army chief has repeatedly ruled out a crackdown on the shopping area, given the risk of high civilian casualties, but if provoked, the military may have no choice.

MARKET REACTION: Thai assets already price in a relatively high degree of political risk but are considered vulnerable if the red shirts appear to be getting the upper hand in clashes.

This means Thai stocks <.SETI>, which jumped 15 percent from mid-February to April 9 on a $1.8 billion wave of foreign buying, are likely to remain volatile with significant unrest triggering knee-jerk price falls followed by tentative buying by bargain hunters tapping one of Asia’s cheapest markets.

The baht <THB=>, which has lost 0.1 percent in the past month, is taking its lead from stocks and would likely test initial support at around 32.50 if the government appears to be losing control. Government bonds have been gaining on flight to quality with the five-year yields likely to test seven-month lows in the event of significant unrest.

STALEMATE, HEIGHTENED TENSIONS, PRESSURE FOR TALKS

With neither side willing to make major concessions, the crisis will grind on in a prolonged stalemate that rattles nerves in the capital city of 15 million people, but fails to bring either side closer to their goals.

The red shirts want immediate dissolution of parliament, which would require elections within 90 days. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has offered to call elections in December, a year early, and refuses to negotiate in the face of threats.

Both sides want to be in power in September for two crucial events — a reshuffle of the country’s powerful military and police forces, and the passing of the national budget.

The military builds up its presence around the protesters’ 3 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) fortified encampment in central Bangkok, threatening a crackdown — a mostly psychological scare tactic that might help them gain an advantage in talks.

As the impasse deepens, and Bangkok grows increasingly tense, public pressure for talks reaches a point neither side can avoid. Talks, however, fail to produce a substantive agreement and stalemate continues with thousands of red shirts remaining in the city’s shopping district until a violent confrontation.

MARKET REACTION: Stalemate could be good for Thai markets. A lull in the violence could refocus investors on Thailand’s growth story which, despite the political unrest, remains promising. The central bank raised its 2010 economic growth forecast on Thursday to 4.3-5.8 percent, supported by strong exports.

April has been a volatile month for Thai stocks, but that’s mostly due to sudden slides in the wake of deadly incidents such as fighting on April 10 that killed 25 people and sparked a 3.6 percent drop in the benchmark index to a four-week low.

Over April, the SET index <.SETI> is down 4.9 percent, compared with a 0.3 percent rise in Asia’s markets outside of Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS>. But over the past three months, the SET is up 8.7 percent, outperforming the 7.0 percent rise in Asia’s markets outside of Japan and reflecting fundamental optimism over Thailand’s export-oriented economy.

MILITARY BUILDUP, PROTEST DWINDLES, ARMY CRACKS DOWN

The military steadily builds up its presence on the outskirts of the shopping district occupied by the protesters since April 3. Slowly, protest numbers dwindle, as red shirts become increasingly concerned over a crackdown.

The army repeatedly warns women and children to leave, establishes a perimeter and evacuates nearby buildings. It offers as many red shirts as possible a way out. Once the military determines that those remaining in the shopping district are of a hardcore element, they move in just before dawn.

Clashes ensue, causing many casualties. Militants within the ranks of the protesters wage a fierce fight which could spill into neighbouring upscale residential districts.

The military eventually surrounds the site in huge numbers. Many protesters agree to leave, others are chased away by troops. The government swiftly announces it has taken control.

Protest leaders vow to regroup. After a flurry of phone calls and text messages, and "red shirt" radio issuing a call to mass at another site, within days thousands begin a new demonstration elsewhere. Red shirts in rural provinces seize control of city halls and other government institutions.

MARKET IMPACT: Heavy fighting with high casualties would likely trigger a knee-jerk plunge in stock prices that would also hurt the baht and send investors scurrying into the relative safety of government bonds, pushing yields down and likely delaying any chance of a long-awaited interest rate rise in June.

Any indication the government had taken the advantage, however, would be seen as an opportunity to buy on the belief the worst is over. Much depends on whether the red shirts regroup, and how much violence or control they exert in the provinces.

Apr 25, 2010

Thai “red shirts” vow to intensify campaign

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Anti-government protesters encamped for weeks in central Bangkok promised more aggressive measures after the government rejected their proposals to end increasingly violent protests in return for early polls.

“Red-shirt” protest leaders called on their supporters in the countryside to confront the army and police. Their backers responded by blockading police convoys in at least two areas.

Apr 25, 2010

Thai "red shirts" vow to intensify campaign

BANGKOK, April 25 (Reuters) – Anti-government protesters encamped for weeks in central Bangkok promised more aggressive measures after the government rejected their proposals to end increasingly violent protests in return for early polls.

"Red-shirt" protest leaders called on their supporters in the countryside to confront the army and police. Their backers responded by blockading police convoys in at least two areas.

The stalemate rekindled fears of more unrest and a heavier toll on Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy as more retailers shut their doors and tourist numbers dwindle.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he would soon scale back Thailand’s annual economic growth forecast.

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About 500 km (310 miles) north of Bangkok, hundreds of "red shirts" formed a roadblock in northeastern Udon Thani province and stopped a convoy of 150 police from heading to the capital to strengthen security operations, a local official told Reuters.

They formed another roadblock in Pathum Thani, about 50 kms (30 miles) north of Bangkok, preventing around 200 policemen from entering the city.

Police reinforcements are being brought into the capital to forcibly disperse thousands of protesters occupying some central areas, said red shirt leader Jatuporn Prompang.

"We will try to block every spot we can in a bid to stop killing. We don’t want to see anybody die," he told Reuters.

The army’s failed attempt to eject red shirts from another site in Bangkok on April 10 led to clashes that killed 25 and wounded more than 800.

Coming after red shirts stopped a troop train in the north last week, the blockade raises questions over whether Abhisit can exert full control over rebellious parts of Thailand as the deadly protests enter a seventh week.

SOLIDARITY WITH MILITARY

Abhisit, speaking on Sunday in a televised interview with army chief Anupong Paochinda in a show of solidarity with the military, flatly rejected a red shirt offer to call elections in 30 days and hold a vote 60 days later.

"There must not be a precedent that allows intimidation to bring about political change," Abhisit said in his weekly television broadcast on Sunday. "Thirty days is out of question. I don’t think this problem can be solved within 30 days."

Hotel occupancy in Bangkok has crumbled to 20 percent from about 80 percent in February, squeezing an industry that supports six percent of the economy.

Abhisit said he would soon scale back the government’s projection of 4.5 percent annual economic growth this year.

The army has had to deal with a rogue military element that supports the protesters and is allied with former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in 2006 coup and sentenced to prison for corruption after fleeing the country.

The army chief sought to downplay signs of a split in the armed forces, but he acknowledged for the first time some retired and active officers had joined the protest movement.

"Some of those involved in the deadly attacks are still in the military," he said. "But on the division, any big organisation could have that."

Abhisit’s six-party coalition government is under intense pressure from upper-class and royalist Thais to rebuff demands from the mostly poor red shirts. He stuck to an earlier offer to dissolve parliament and call elections in December, a year early.

Bangkok, a sprawling city of 15 million people, has been on edge after grenade blasts three days ago killed one person and wounded 88 in the business district, an attack the government blamed on the red-shirts, who deny they were responsible.

MORE ARMY THREATS

The army warned on Saturday it would forcibly disperse thousands of red shirts in a fortified encampment stretching 3 square-km (1.9 miles) in Bangkok’s main shopping district, but it wants to first separate militants from women and children.

The army has repeatedly threatened to crack down, saying protesters cannot occupy a key commercial district indefinitely.

Protest leaders are urging supporters to remove their trademark red shirts to make it harder for troops to find them. They threatened other aggressive measures, including laying siege to Central World, the second-largest shopping complex in Southeast Asia, next to the stage at their main protest site.

The shopping centre at the Rajaprasong intersection has been closed since the protesters occupied the area on April 3.

Residents of the capital, weary of the red-shirt tactics, have formed a "multi-coloured" protest group that has drawn thousands to its rallies in the capital.

"This hardening of the battle lines between the two sides does not bode well for Bangkok’s security situation and a risk of another, and this time maybe even more violent, crackdown is immediate," risk consultancy IHS Global Insight said in a note.

The government is stepping up accusations the red shirts want to overthrow the monarchy, which the protesters deny, raising the stakes in a country whose 82-year-old king is deeply revered but has appeared rarely in public since entering hospital Sept. 19.

The red shirts say British-born and Oxford-educated Abhisit came to power illegitimately in December 2008, heading a coalition the military cobbled together after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin party that led the previous government. (Additional reporting by Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Paul Tait)




    • About Jason

      "As Southeast Asia Bureau Chief, Jason Szep manages text, pictures and television news operations across 10 countries for Reuters. He has been a Reuters correspondent, bureau chief and editor since 1990 and won the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi award in 2007. He is a Boston native and has had postings with Reuters in Toronto, Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Boston and Bangkok. His assignments have ranged from Kabul and Islamabad to the U.S. presidential campaign trail during the 2008 election."
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