Thai protesters fan out in Bangkok, threaten businesses, breach election building

By Kinan Suchaovanich, AP
Monday, April 5, 2010

Protesters vow to stay in Bangkok commercial core

BANGKOK — Thousands of defiant anti-government demonstrators fanned out to other parts of Thailand’s capital and threatened businesses with ties to the government Monday after ignoring police orders to leave Bangkok’s paralyzed commercial district.

Some protesters pushed their way into their newest target, the Election Commission, in anger that the body has yet to decide whether the ruling Democrat Party violated laws on financial donations, which could lead to the party’s dissolution. No violence was reported and all protesters — inside and outside the building — left the area after a compromise was reached.

Protest leaders vowed to step up their pressure Tuesday and lead convoys through 11 main roads in central Bangkok that authorities have declared off-limits.

“We will teach the government a lesson — that every road belongs to the people,” said one of the protest leaders, Nattawut Saikua.

The protesters, mostly farmers from impoverished provincial areas who have characterized their movement as a class war against the Bangkok elite, have sworn not to let up their pressure until Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva steps down and calls new elections. Abhisit has offered to call elections by the year’s end, but the protesters want quicker action.

The movement — known formally as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship — contends that Abhisit came to power illegitimately in the years after ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed in a 2006 coup on corruption allegations. The group is made up largely of Thaksin supporters and pro-democracy activists who opposed the putsch. The years since the coup have been increasing political turmoil that has divided Thai society.

Jatuporn Prompan, another protest leader, said demonstrators would maintain bases within both Bangkok’s commercial heart and the separate historic quarter of the city — where they began to encamp March 12 — and also branch out to other locations.

Another protest leader, Kwanchai Praipana, led at least 10,000 followers to the Election Commission and after a tense confrontation, with the Red Shirts pressing up against the building, he met with the commissioners.

In the first substantial compromise reached by the opposing sides, the commission agreed to rule on the allegation against the Democrat Party on April 20 rather than the scheduled April 30.

Government opponents charged last year that the party received a 258 million baht ($8 million) donation from a Thai conglomerate — well beyond the limit set for individuals or companies.

Some 100 Red Shirts earlier pushed past police to enter the first floor of the commission building, but Kwanchai sent his guards to ask them to leave. The compromise was announced shortly thereafter.

The protests that targeted the commercial district over the weekend forced the closure of more than six upscale shopping malls and tough security measures at nearby five-star hotels. Economic losses were estimated at up to 500 million baht ($15 million) a day, and the malls and many offices and banks in the area remained closed Monday.

Late Monday, a Civil Court rejected an injunction sought by the government to order protesters out of the shopping district. The court ruled the government needs only the special security law it has already invoked to ask the protesters to leave. But demonstrators have ignored orders to disperse.

So far, the government has refrained from using force against them despite pressure from segments of the Bangkok population fed up by business losses and disruption to daily life.

In an impassioned speech Monday morning, Jatuporn warned major businesses with ties to the elite like Bangkok Bank and the giant agribusiness enterprise Charoen Pokphand Group, and attacked the head of the king’s advisory council, Prem Tinsulanonda. Prem serves as an adviser to the bank.

“If Charoen Pokphand wants to side with the government, then we shall see how long it can survive without Red Shirt customers,” he said. “Imagine if all the Red Shirts decide to withdraw their money from Bangkok Bank.”

The central Bank of Thailand said 43 branches of commercial banks in the metropolitan area were shut Monday as a precaution.

The protesters claim Prem, a one-time prime minister and head of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Privy Council, was instrumental in the 2006 coup and continues to pull political strings.

Jatuporn said big businesses, the prime minister and the judicial system were all “remote-controlled” by Prem.

Allies of Thaksin — whose policies of cheap health care and low-interest village loans benefited the rural poor from which many of the protesters are drawn — won the first elections after the coup but two resulting governments were forced out by court rulings. A parliamentary vote brought Abhisit’s party to power in December 2008. The Red Shirts say his rule is undemocratic and that only new elections can restore integrity to Thai democracy.

Abhisit must call new elections by the end of 2011, and many believe Thaksin’s allies are likely to win — which could spark protests by Thaksin’s opponents.

Thaksin, a multimillionaire convicted in absentia on corruption-related charges, is a fugitive abroad and encourages the Red Shirts with frequent messages. His six years in office were riddled by accusations of nepotism and an erosion of democratic institutions.

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