Thai protesters storm into TV compound, vowing to reopen station shut by government

By Kinan Suchaovanich, AP
Friday, April 9, 2010

Thai protesters storm into TV compound

BANGKOK — Protesters who want a change of government in Thailand forced their way Friday into a satellite transmission complex, sending soldiers fleeing and compelling authorities to reverse a ban on their TV channel.

The action was the latest setback to government efforts to quash a month of disruptive street protests, and erodes the credibility of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, even among his own supporters. The army’s failure to keep order raised concerns about its loyalty to his government.

Further embarrassing the government was its failure to arrest protest leaders who spoke freely from a public stage Friday night to tens of thousands of supporters despite warrants being issued for their arrest earlier in the day.

Speaking late Friday night in a brief television address on all stations, Abhisit accused the protesters of showing arrogance, but did not explain why the government bowed to their demand that the TV channel be restored.

“Today we might be disappointed but the situation is not over yet,” he said, in reference to criticism that he has been too soft in trying to quell the protests. “We will stand firm in leading the nation back to normalcy.”

Complaints among the media and public about Abhisit’s leadership have been rising since the so-called Red Shirt protesters, who had established a base last month in the old part of Bangkok, set up a new encampment a week ago at Rajprasong intersection, in the heart of the capital’s tourist and shopping district.

Local merchants complained that 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 has come and gone, 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 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.

The protesters, who appeared to total between 3,000 and 5,000, 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. The station was set up and financed by Red Shirt sympathizers. A number of small community radio stations also are allied with the protesters, who also use cell phones and social networking to communicate.

“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 their Rajprasong rally site.

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

“The government could be seen as humiliating itself if it fails to enforce the law,” said Associate Prof. 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.

“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 has traditionally played a significant role in 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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