BANGKOK — Antigovernment “Red Shirt” demonstrators defied state of emergency rules Friday in Bangkok, angering those who want the Thai government to take a tougher approach to end a four-week protest.
While the state of emergency that Prime Minister Abhisit declared on Wednesday gave him sweeping powers to detain protesters, censor news media, and restrict movements in and around Bangkok, few of those powers have been put into effect, leaving the streets in the hands of the protesters and their roving convoys of cars and motorbikes.
“I believe that civilian control has completely broken down. Abhisit is just going through the motions,” says Sean Boonpracong, a spokesman for the Red Shirts, who draw on rural and working-class support.
In the latest incident today, thousands of red-shirted protesters forced their way into the compound of a satellite broadcaster which the government had ordered shut down Thursday. Police and soldiers fired water cannons and tear gas but failed to stop the unarmed intruders and beat a humiliating retreat. The TV channel later resumed service.
Protest leaders, who are calling for Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament, have been emboldened by the government’s hesitant approach. They claim that security forces are reluctant to carry out Mr. Abhisit’s orders and that his position has been weakened.
Abhisit urged to crack down harder
Military sources deny any rift with the government and insist that force is being calibrated to minimize casualties. “Both sides have to exercise restraint otherwise they’re going to lose the moral high ground,” says a senior Army officer
Thai commentators have urged Abhisit to crack down on the protesters, who rail daily against him and his allies, including his royalist backers. Bangkok was paralyzed by royalist protests in 2008 against an elected government allied to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in 2006 by a coup. That protest movement peaked in a week-long seizure of Bangkok’s two airports before Abhisit took over as prime minister with military backing.
Analysts say the odds are against an orderly dispersal of protest sites in Bangkok, including a downtown shopping district where tens of thousands congregated last weekend. In recent days, the crowds have tapered off, as Thais prepare to celebrate New Year holidays next week.
‘We just want democracy’
By mid-afternoon Friday, a few thousands protesters were gathered in the shopping district under a wilting sun. A giant banner strung over a stage on the side of an overhead light-rail line, a symbol of modern Bangkok, read in English ‘Welcome to Thailand. We just want democracy.”
The New Year holiday was disrupted last year by clashes between Red Shirts and combat troops sent in to restore order. While the use of military force was seen as justified against those violent protests, this year’s demonstrations have been largely peaceful, as Red shirts have sought to win over Bangkok residents. At their peak, their rallies have drawn up to 150,000 people.
This strategy was initially successful, as convoys around the city drew boisterous crowds, mostly of working-class and provincial migrants. But wealthy Bangkok residents see the protesters as puppets of Mr. Thaksin, who is a fugitive from Thai justice and lives in Dubai.
That leaves the dwindling ranks of protesters exposed to a security sweep in the coming days, says Paul Quaglia, executive director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok. “The Red shirts are behind enemy lines. The Bangkok elite is not on their team,” he says.