Thailand: Protests gain momentum as Thai PM refuses to resign

BANGKOK, Thailand — Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected calls Monday for his resignation as red-shirted opponents sought to expand their street campaign to unseat his government.

A long convoy of vehicles converged outside a military base where Mr. Abhisit is staying, paralyzing parts of the Thai capital. After a few hours, the protesters left the heavily fortified base and returned to their protest site in the heart of historic Bangkok for a third night of demonstrations, which attracted over 100,000 people on Sunday.

In a sign of the underlying tensions, several grenades were fired from the perimeter into an Army camp in another part of the city. Two soldiers were injured in the attack, which bore the hallmarks of other unexplained incidents in recent years. Thais on both sides blame provocateurs for stirring trouble during political stand-offs to foment violence.

On Sunday, red-shirt leaders, aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had set a deadline of noon Monday for Abhisit to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections. As expected, Abhisit refused and defended his right to continue ruling the deeply divided country.

‘The government has time on its side’

The standoff is set to continue for several days, as red-shirt leaders seek to rattle the government. But the difficulty of sustaining a nonstop rally by protesters who are mostly from outside Bangkok, where Thaksin’s base is strongest, may start to tell.

“They’re waiting each other out. But the government has time on its side,” says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a security consultant.

A senior Army officer said the turnout of protesters was below expectations and predicted that it would fizzle within a week. Government officials have reported much lower numbers than independent observers have, and there has been scant coverage on government-run TV channels.

While many red shirts pledge loyalty to Thaksin, who was ousted by a coup in 2006 and lives in Dubai, they insist their real cause is democracy and justice. Most are scornful of British-educated Abhisit, who took power in December 2008 with military backing after the court-ordered break-up of a pro-Thaksin government.

“Abhisit doesn’t know how run this country. He lived and studied overseas, he’s got no idea about Thailand,” says Nittaya Chaicharoenwattana, a retired teacher, as she cheered a passing convoy of red-shirt protesters.

Abhisit heads a six-party coalition that includes minor parties led by former Thaksin loyalists. Some lawmakers have reportedly threatened to switch sides and form a pro-Thaksin coalition, essentially reversing the maneuver that installed Abhisit. A senior cabinet minister in Abhisit’s Democrat Party insisted Monday that his government was in no danger of collapsing.

Big crowds welcome the protesters

Last week, as Bangkok braced for what organizers claimed would be the country’s biggest-ever political rally, government officials warned that violence could erupt, sparking travel warnings for foreign tourists. A similar gathering last April led to riots that troops put down, sullying the popular image of the red shirts.

But the red shirts were greeted Monday by cheering, whooping crowds as their convoys of pickup trucks and buses crawled through the congested streets toward the Army base. Some shops had closed in anticipation, but others stayed open and allowed employees to join the jubilant throng of onlookers.

“We love Thaksin! We love democracy!” screamed a middle-aged woman from a footbridge, as her companion pointed her digital camera at the passing convoy. From below, Thai country rock blasted out of speakers mounted on a truck, on which protesters danced precariously.

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