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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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For a graphic: link.reuters.com/rap67j

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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)




Apr 25, 2010

Bangkok braces for more unrest after peace plan rejected

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Bangkok braced on Sunday for more unrest a day after the Thai government rejected a peace overture from demonstrators offering to end increasingly violent protests in return for early polls.

The red-shirted supporters of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra told thousands of supporters to expect a crackdown and rescinded their offer to end a three-week occupation of Bangkok’s main shopping area if the government called elections in 30 days.

Apr 24, 2010

Thai PM rejects protesters’ peace offer

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Saturday a rejected a new, compromise offer by anti-government red-shirt demonstrators to end weeks of increasingly violent protests in return for early polls.

The red-shirted supporters of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra immediately removed their offer to end a three-week occupation of Bangkok’s ritzy shopping area if the government dissolved parliament and announced elections in 30 days.

Apr 23, 2010

Thai ‘red shirts’ offer compromise to end impasse

BANGKOK, April 23 (Reuters) – Protesters and the Thai
government stepped back from the brink of all-out armed
conflict on Friday as both sides offered hints of compromise a
day after deadly grenade attacks hit Bangkok’s business
district.

The red-shirted supporters of ousted former premier Thaksin
Shinawatra said they will end a three-week occupation of
Bangkok’s ritzy shopping district if the government dissolved
parliament and called elections in 30 days instead of
immediately.

Apr 22, 2010

Grenade blasts kill 3, wound 75 in Bangkok

BANGKOK (Reuters) – A series of grenade blasts shook Bangkok’s business district on Thursday, killing at least three people and wounding 75, heightening tensions during a showdown between troops and anti-government protesters.

Five explosions hit an area packed with heavily armed soldiers and studded with banks, office towers and hotels. Four were seriously wounded, including two foreigners, according to hospital officials.

Apr 21, 2010

Thai PM facing pressure from all directions

BANGKOK, April 20 (Reuters) – Pressure on Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is coming from all directions.

An elections watchdog wants his party dissolved. Most analysts doubt he can win a national election. His emergency decree and security forces have failed to stop an increasingly bold, six-week "red shirt" protest that wants him out of office.

Adding to that burden is growing unrest within his own Democrat Party, signs of frustration in his fragile six-party ruling coalition and an army that has shown reluctance to follow his orders demanding tough action to reign in the red shirts.

Political analysts, however, say Abhisit does appear to have one powerful force on his side — the royalist establishment closely aligned with Thailand’s revered king. That in itself could keep him in power, though for how long remains uncertain.

"It is likely that he has strong backing from high-ranking members of the royalist establishment," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"But sooner or later he will have to go. Either he goes now or goes later. He is just buying time now."

All this is an unprecedented test for Abhisit, 45, a British-born, Oxford-educated economist lauded by investors for steering Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy out of recession with fellow Oxford alumnus Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij.

In recent weeks, he has suffered a series of humiliating setbacks, beginning in earnest on April 7 when protesters stormed parliament and forced several officials, including his deputy, to climb over a fence and flee by helicopter.

Two days later, after announcing a state of emergency, tens of thousands of protesters forced their way into the grounds of a a satellite station to force back on air a television channel he had censored. TV footage showed some soldiers later shaking hands with the protesters, who faced little resistance.

That was followed by a bloody crackdown on the protesters on April 10 that killed 25 people, mostly civilians, and wounded more than 800 without ending the protests.

Television showed arguably the most humiliating footage of all on Friday: a red shirt leader, Arisman Pongruangrong, escaping from a Bangkok hotel on the end of an electrical cable an hour after the government ordered his arrest

GETTING TOUGH

Since then, Abhisit’s language has become tougher, more uncompromising and at times threatening. He has rowed fully back on an earlier strategy of avoiding violence with the supporters of his nemesis, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

He told a television interviewer on Monday he would reclaim a district of high-end department stores and luxury hotels occupied by the red shirts since April 3, warning they must be brought under control and face penalties for breaking the law.

"If we allow those who use force to threaten a political change, we will have a lawless country," he said.

But his relationship with the military has not been easy. The Bankok Post newspaper has reported on his apparent frustration with Army chief Gen. Anupong Paojinda, a moderate who retires in September and who has resisted advancing on the protesters.

Anupong made headlines last week by suggestion the standoff required a political solution, urging dissolution of parliament — something the red shirts want immediately. He did not give a timeframe and has since been placed by Abhisit in a new role responsible for security during the demonstrations.

Abhisit last month offered to dissolve parliament in December, a year early, but that was rejected by protesters.

"Abhisit has proven himself tougher and more ruthless than many people expected, especially given that he’d not been PM that long," said Joshua Kurlantzick of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a U.S. think tank."He’s proven himself willing to take tough tactics and to do what’s needed to stay in power."

But it’s unclear tough talk alone can solve his mounting problems, including frustration in an anti-Thaksin protest group known as the "yellow shirts", whose 2008 occupation of Bangkok airport was instrumental in bringing Abhisit’s party to power.

Adding to the headache is the unexpectedly strong turnout in the six-week red shirt protests by the rural and urban poor who call for class warfare to end social injustice — and their backing by renegade generals allied with Thaksin.

The red shirts see Abhisit as a front man for an unelected elite and military intervening in politics and operating with impunity. They say he lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote following a court ruling that dissolved a pro-Thaksin ruling party.

Most analysts doubt the military would succeed in a new crackdown on the protesters without inflicting huge casualties and sparking looting in an area studded with department stores.

That raises questions over why Abhisit doesn’t simply bend and offer to dissolve parliament immediately.

"It’s unlikely he’ll quit," said Danny Richards, senior Asia Editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit. "He’s hanging on in there and the more he continues to do so, the more he’ll be seen as a puppet. He keeps saying he’s legitimate but until he can be voted back to power in an election, that doesn’t mean much."

(Editing by Bill Tarrant)



Apr 13, 2010

Thai military divisions spilling dangerously into open

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Who were the shadowy gunman firing on troops in Bangkok’s bloody riots last weekend, and who fired the grenades?

The answers to those questions could point to the emergence of a dangerous split within Thailand’s armed forces, one that could spark more bloodshed unless the beleaguered government calls elections promptly to defuse the political tensions.

Apr 11, 2010

Eighteen killed in Bangkok protest clashes

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Eighteen people were killed and more than 800 wounded in Bangkok’s worst political violence in 18 years between troops and “red shirt” protesters demanding that the government step down and call an early election.

The death toll given on Sunday by Erawan Medical Center rose during the night although the fighting, some of it in well-known tourist areas, had ended after the security forces pulled back late on Saturday and urged the “red shirts” to do the same.

Apr 10, 2010

Twelve die as troops, protesters clash in Bangkok

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas at thousands of demonstrators, who fought back with guns, grenades and petrol bombs in riots that killed 12 people, Bangkok’s worst political violence in 18 years.

At least 521 people, including 64 soldiers and police, were wounded in the fighting near the Phan Fah bridge and Rajdumnoen Road in Bangkok’s old quarter, a protest base near government buildings and the regional U.N. headquarters.

    • 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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