Thu, Apr 15, 2010 - Page 4 News List

‘Red shirts’ face ‘final battle’ again

‘HOSTAGE’Protesters are consolidating their position near the second-largest shopping mall in Southeast Asia, where it will be difficult for troops to use force

REUTERS , BANGKOK

An anti-government “red shirt” demonstrator sits on top of an abandoned armored vehicle behind a picture depicting Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva at the site of fierce street battles with security forces in central Bangkok, Thailand, yesterday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Thailand’s anti-government protesters yesterday started to congregate at a ritzy Bangkok shopping district, preparing for a “final battleground” in their campaign to oust army-backed Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The change in tactics came as the death toll from Thailand’s bloodiest political violence since 1992 rose by two — a protester and a soldier — to 23, medical authorities said, and as the prospect of further impasse looked set to clip growth in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.

“We will use the Rachaprasong area as the final battleground to oust the government,” protest leader Nattawut Saikua told reporters yesterday, referring to a hotel and shopping district a couple of blocks from Bangkok’s financial district.

“There will be no more negotiations,” he said.

The “red shirts,” who have vowed “final” days of reckoning before, want Abhisit to quit office and dissolve parliament ahead of new elections. They began leaving a protest site close to Saturday’s clashes to consolidate opposition in their other base in Bangkok’s commercial center, which they have occupied for the past 10 days.

The geography of the area, and the presence of families, tourists and expatriates, would make it difficult for troops to move in again with force.

It is home to Central World, the second-largest shopping complex in Southeast Asia, and other big malls, which shut their doors when the protests began.

“They are holding the economy as their hostage,” Ramkhamhaeng University political scientist Boonyakiat Karavekphan said.

Bangkok was peaceful yesterday during the second day of the three-day Thai New Year celebration called Songkran, after protesters called off a planned a march on an army base where Abhisit has taken shelter during the month-long campaign.

Tens of thousands of revelers took to the streets of Bangkok on Tuesday night, dousing each other with water and flour in traditional celebrations.

However, tension could flare again when the holiday ends, and financial markets are likely to see renewed selling when they reopen tomorrow.

Abhisit, who most political analysts had predicted would ride out the storm, appears more vulnerable now after the surprise announcement this week of an investigation into possible corrupt funding of his party and comments from the army chief that only polls could end a crisis that has gripped Thailand since 2006.

Abhisit has said he could call elections by the end of the year, although his hand could be forced by a recommendation this week from the Election Commission that his Democrat Party should face charges of illegal funding.

If a court upholds the charges, Abhisit, who came to power in 2008 when the army brokered a deal in parliament, could be banned from holding office and Thailand’s oldest political party could be dissolved. Any prosecution could take months, however.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban ordered police to hunt for “terrorists” the government blames for the killings in the old quarter on Saturday. More than 800 people were injured in the army’s failed attempt to eject protesters from that site.

“We believe there were ­terrorists who were ambushing in the area,” army spokesman Sansern Kaewkumnerd said, adding troops used live rounds either to shoot in the air or in self-defense.

“In the cases of self-defense, it was done to protect themselves while pulling back rather than targeting opponents,” he said. “They were firing one bullet after another, rather than spraying a whole round.”

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