Thai protesters fan out in Bangkok, threaten businesses connected to government

By Kinan Suchaovanich, AP
Monday, April 5, 2010

Defiant Thai protesters fan out in nervous capital

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.

About 100 protesters pushed their way into their newest target, the Election Commission, in anger that the commission has yet to rule on 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.

The protesters, mostly farmers from impoverished provincial areas, have sworn not to let up their pressure until Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva steps down and calls new elections.

Jatuporn Prompan, a 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.

Jatuporn also threatened that big businesses would be “in big trouble” if they didn’t sever their connections to the government.

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 entered to meet 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. The deal was brokered by a senior police officer.

Government opponents lodged the accusation last year, charging that the party received a 258 million baht ($8 million) donation from a Thai conglomerate. The Constitution bars donations of more than 10 million baht ($300,000) per individual or company.

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

In a departure from tradition, speeches by the protest leaders have become increasingly peppered by crude language, with government leaders variously referred to as adulterers, cowards and rats. There have also been veiled death threats against Abhisit.

Public insults and vulgar speech are traditionally shunned in Thailand, where the culture prizes politeness above almost all.

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.

The government sought a Civil Court injunction to order Red Shirt leaders out of the commercial area and prevent them from entering 11 other major roads in Bangkok. It was not certain when the court would act on the petition, signed by Abhisit.

Abhisit has repeatedly refused demands of the Red Shirts that he immediately dissolve Parliament and call new elections, despite protracted protests in the capital and unsuccessful negotiations last week.

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 like Bangkok Bank and Charoen Pokphand Group, a giant agribusiness enterprise, and attacked the head of the king’s advisory council, Prem Tinsulanonda.

“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 Red Shirt movement — known formally as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship — consists largely of supporters of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed a 2006 military coup that ousted him on corruption allegations.

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

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

Protest leaders have portrayed the demonstrations as a struggle between Thailand’s impoverished, mainly rural masses — who benefited from Thaksin policies of cheap health care and low-interest village loans — and a Bangkok-based elite impervious to their plight.

Thaksin’s allies won elections in December 2007 to restore democracy, 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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