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Thailand protests return as ‘red shirts’ gather to show strength

BANGKOK, THAILAND — Several thousand antigovernment protesters took to the streets here Sunday to call for justice over events in April and May, when rowdy demonstrations led to street fighting with heavily armed troops, leaving 91 dead.

The Thailand protests were the biggest show of strength by the country’s opposition since the May crackdown and marked the four-year anniversary of a 2006 coup that deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra but failed to quell his popularity or influence.

Wearing their trademark red shirts, the crowds gathered starting at midday at a downtown intersection that they had occupied for several weeks to call for new elections. By early evening, most people had left after shouting slogans, releasing red balloons, and tying red ribbons on signposts. The rally was loud and boisterous, but there was no sign of tension between protesters and hundreds of policemen deployed in the area.

The demonstration went ahead despite a state of emergency in place in Bangkok and six other provinces that allows authorities to ban public gatherings, censor media, and detain suspects for longer periods than normal. Government officials had said that the protesters could assemble as long as they didn’t block traffic and dispersed peacefully.

A smaller number of “red shirts” gathered Friday outside several prisons where their leaders and rank-and-file members are being held. Hundreds of red shirts were jailed in the aftermath of May’s violence, the worst in a generation in a polarized country with a history of political instability.

Demonstrations were also held Sunday in other cities in Thailand where the emergency decree had already been lifted. Large crowds gathered in Chiang Mai, the northern city that is among Mr. Thaksin’s power bases, to hear speeches by red-shirt leaders.

Much of the anger on display in Bangkok was directed at Thailand’s military, which backs Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Banners and T-shirts urged authorities to investigate the violence. A banner in English hung over a bridge asked ‘Who is Killer?’ [sic]. ‘Stop Killing People’ read one T-shirt.

“I’m sad at what has happened to Thailand in the last four years. I’m upset at the injustice,” says Somnuek Aphinanmongkol, an engineer who wore blue jeans and loafers.

No violence was reported Sunday. In recent weeks, Bangkok and Chiang Mai have been hit by several nonfatal bombings in what security analysts say is probably the handiwork of militant red shirts. Some politicians have accused the government of being behind the violence as a pretext to prolong emergency rule.

The current state of emergency in Bangkok ends on Oct 4. Human rights groups have called on the government to lift the restrictions. Thai businessmen have complained that it deters tourists and hurts the nation’s image. Security officials have said the situation is still unsettled.

Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher for Amnesty International, says the Thai government deserves credit for allowing Sunday’s demonstration to proceed. But he argues that the selective use of emergency rules is no substitute for the full restoration of political and civil rights.

“So as the demonstrations are peaceful, they should be permitted, not as the exception but as the rule,” he says.

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