Friday, April 9, 2010

Thai ‘red shirt’ protesters prepare for mass marches


Tens of thousands of Thai anti-government protesters prepared for mass marches on secret locations today in defiance of an emergency decree imposed to quell nearly a month of protests demanding new elections.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva imposed a state of emergency on Wednesday and authorities have since blocked websites and shut down an influential opposition television station, sparking scuffles between riot police and the red-shirted protesters and raising questions about what happens next.

Bangkok is calm, life goes on as normal, but the protesters are defiant.

“We will tear up all laws,” Nattawut Saikua, a “red shirt” leader, told tens of thousands of the mostly rural and working class protesters who have ignored orders to leave Bangkok’s main shopping district since Saturday.

He called for marches to 10 undisclosed locations across Bangkok and urged any red shirts who have private vehicles to bring them along, billing the protest as the biggest in nearly four weeks of sporadic anti-government street rallies.

“We will move out to 10 locations at the same time,” he said. “We don’t want to call it the final day, but if we can score a knockout, we definitely will,” he said. “This is all for Abhisit to dissolve parliament.”

The risk of confrontation has raised concern of fallout on Thailand’s economy, Southeast Asia’s second biggest. Central bank officials and the country’s finance minister have said it could affect monetary policy, possibly delaying an expected rate rise.

Thailand’s stock market, which had surged about 80 per cent over the past 12 months as Asia’s third-best performer, fell 3.5 per cent yesterday to its lowest since Oct 15.

Foreigners, who bought US$1.8 billion (RM6.12 billion) in Thai stocks in since Feb 22, turned net sellers for the first time in more than six weeks after a buying spree spurred by cheap valuations and Thailand’s rebounding, export-driven economy.

Thousands of the supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and now lives in self-imposed exile, had gathered in the shopping district by morning. Many had slept there on cardboard boxes.

Authorities have issued arrest warrants for 10 red shirt leaders, the army said, raising the possibility of swift arrests.

But some experts say such arrests may only embolden the protest movement and sharpen its message of double standards after no convictions were made when their archrival protesters known as the yellow shirts blockaded Bangkok’s international airport for a week in 2008 until a court ousted the government.

Kasit Piromya, a vocal yellow-shirt leader in the airport blockade that stranded hundreds of thousands of travelers, went on to become foreign minister in the current government.

“This is obviously another case of double standards,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“In a way, the red shirts might be willing to let their leaders get arrested to boost morale,” he said. “They can say ‘the yellow shirts did it two years ago. These people still walk freely on the street. But with the red shirts, look at what the government does. It arrests them’.”

Abhisit faces pressure to either compromise and call an election he could easily lose, or launch a crackdown on tens of thousands of protesters that could stir up even more trouble.

Most analysts doubt the authorities will use force to remove the protesters from the shopping area — a politically risky decision for Abhisit as his 16-month-old coalition government struggles to build support outside Bangkok.

By yesterday, authorities had blocked most websites associated with the protesters and taken several opposition TV channels off air. Military checkpoints had gone up outside Bangkok to stop more from entering the sprawling city of 15 million people.

“We will go on the offensive,” a protest leader, Weng Tojirakarn, told Reuters.

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