Humiliated Thai PM vows not to give in to intensified protest against government

By Grant Peck, AP
Friday, April 9, 2010

Thai PM vows not to give in to intensified protest

BANGKOK — Emboldened anti-government demonstrators clashed with Thai soldiers, then shared water and food with them as the first violent confrontation of a monthlong protest compelled authorities to briefly restore a censored TV channel, eroded the prime minister’s credibility and exposed concerns about the army’s loyalty.

But Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva vowed late Friday not to bend to demands that he relinquish power as more than 4,000 army troops retook a satellite transmission complex and again shut down the TV station vital to the demonstrators.

“It’s not over yet. I’m confident if we stay true to righteousness, we will win the day,” Abhisit said on nationwide television.

Although rumors circulated that the army would be called in to clear thousands of protesters encamped in the Thai capital Saturday, Abhisit gave no indication that he would veer from his strict adherence to nonviolent measures.

Following Friday’s humiliating rout of troops and riot police by unarmed protesters at the complex, questions rose about loyalty of the security forces, especially the police.

Complaints about Abhisit’s leadership have risen since the so-called Red Shirt protesters, who had established a base last month in the old part of Bangkok, spread to a new encampment a week ago at an intersection in the heart of the capital’s tourist and shopping district.

Merchants say the boisterous demonstrations have cost them tens of millions of baht (millions of dollars), and luxury hotels near the site have been under virtual siege.

The escalating demonstrations are part of a long-running battle between the mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the ruling elite they say orchestrated the 2006 military coup that removed him from power.

They see the Oxford-educated Abhisit as a symbol of the elite and claim he took office illegitimately in December 2008 with the help of military pressure on Parliament.

On Wednesday, Abhisit’s government declared a state of emergency, allowing it to impose curfews, ban public gatherings, censor media and detain suspects without charge for 30 days. One of its first moves was to halt transmission of the Red Shirt’s People Channel TV and block Web sites sympathetic to the protesters’ cause. The actions drew criticism from free speech advocates.

The protesters have been demanding that Abhisit dissolve Parliament within 15 days and call new elections. As their deadline passed, they have focused on tactics to keep up pressure on the government.

Columns of protesters, riding motorcycles and pickup trucks, blared horns and waved red flags Friday as they moved out of their two main encampments and headed north 28 miles (45 kilometers) to the Thaicom transmission station in the suburb of Pathum Thani.

Several thousand protesters first set a deadline for officials to come talk to them about restoring the signal of the People Channel. They then pulled aside barbed wire and climbed over a fence to advance on about 500 soldiers inside the compound, between them and the main building, and began throwing rocks and a few firebombs.

From atop trucks, the soldiers fired water cannons and tossed canisters of mild tear gas, some of which blew back toward them — and for which they wore no masks.

After scattered hand to hand scuffles, the troops retreated in disarray, some taking positions inside the main Thaicom building. As tensions eased, smiling protesters soon began sharing water and food with soldiers who trickled back to the front lawn. About a dozen people were injured.

After talks were held between protest leaders and the authorities, agreement was reached to allow People Channel to resume broadcasting, and protesters and soldiers left the site.

“Today is a major victory of our people who fought the soldiers with their bare hands,” Nattawut Saikua, a Red Shirt leader, told a cheering crowd Friday night at the commercial district rally site.

But several hours later army troops retook the transmission complex and cut off the People Channel’s signal.

Nattawut is one of 27 Red Shirt leaders for whom arrest warrants have been issued. None is known to have been taken into custody.

“The government could be seen as humiliating itself if it fails to enforce the law,” said Associate Professor Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

To effectively enforce the state of emergency, the government needs the cooperation of the military, she said, but it could be that the army is reluctant to use force against the protesters.

Bangkok residents have taken to calling some in the army “watermelon soldiers,” green on the outside but red within, noting the Red Shirts’ signature color.

“The military does not want to become the tool of the government,” she said. “They do not see themselves as the opposing party to the protesters.”

Thailand’s military traditionally has been significant in the nation’s politics, staging almost a score of coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. In 2008, the army undercut the government’s authority by refusing to move against demonstrators who were protesting against a pro-Thaksin government.

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