Thursday, April 16, 2009

Thailand slowly returns to normal

Bangkok and surrounding districts are slowly returning to normal despite enduring a fifth successive day of emergency rule. The government has extended the Thai New Year's holiday for the rest of the week for "public safety" in case the opposition movement regroup. Today Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva pledged to call elections once stability is restored. Yesterday was the first day since the weekend, the so-called Red Shirt have not been out on the streets demanding the resignation of Abhisit’s four-month-old administration The current Prime Minister was appointed in December after a constitutional court banned that the former government loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra.

The red shirts are followers of the former populist Prime Minister now in exile and are officially called the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). They wear red to distinguish themselves from pro-monarchical urban elite followers of the Peoples' Alliance for Democracy (PAD) who wear yellow. PAD protests were instrumental in the overthrow of Thaksin’s rule by military coup in September 2006. Thaksin still retains widespread support among Thailand’s rural poor. His UDD followers claim Abhisit is a puppet of the military and have called on him to resign.

Last month 2,000 protesters began holding sit-in protests outside government offices, and prevented the cabinet from meeting. On the weekend, Red Shirt protesters caused major international embarrassment when they stormed a venue in Pattaya forcing the cancellation of a 16 nation regional summit of Asia Pacific leaders. Abhisit responded by declaring a state of emergency. On 12 April, the Thai government also revoked Thaksin’s passport in absentia.

Matters worsened on Sunday when protesters took over the major Din Daeng intersection in the capital. The choice was strategic as it blocked the crossing that led to Bangkok's main military base. At 4am Monday morning, the army made its first charge which drove away the red shirts. By sunrise, the army had control of the intersection while the protesters had retreated to the roads to Victory monument and the city centre.

For several hours there was an uneasy truce. But at mid-morning, the troops were on the march again. Using a drum beat from their batons and riot shields, they advanced on the protesters. The red shirts greeted them with petrol bombs and rocks and set fire to buses and tyres. Soldiers responded by firing at the demonstrators causing dozens of injuries. The protesters scattered among burning vehicles while the army gave chase. The UDD claim two people were killed and 113 injured in the clashes, though the government denies this.

Protesters were then surrounded by heavily armed soldiers for almost 24 hours, prompting the leaders to give in to avoid further bloodshed. On Tuesday protesters finally ended a three-week siege of Abhisit's offices. In a televised address to the nation later that day, Prime Minister Abhisit said people were dispersing and the situation was returning to normal. One UDD supporter admitted the military had made it too dangerous for him to wear the red shirt. Pairoj Chotsripanporn, a 52-year old trader, said he had now swapped the colour for something more neutral. "We will be attacked by this military-backed government,” said Pairoj. “But we will not stop."

Meanwhile the man behind the demonstrations continues to elude Thai authorities. Thaksin has been on the run since 2006 and Thailand has an arrest warrant out on him. Yesterday Associated Press reported he had been issued a diplomatic passport by Nicaragua. AP said he was appointed an "ambassador on a special mission”. However, the Thai online site Matichon has disputed this claim. They quoted a letter from the Nicaraguan embassy in Mexico to Thai embassy issued yesterday saying that the report was unfounded.

Thaksin spoke to French broadcaster France 24 overnight but did not comment on the passport rumours. Instead he urged King Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene. “I have urged his majesty to intervene. He is the only person that can intervene in this incident, otherwise the violence will become wider and also the confrontation would be more and more,” he said. He also pledged to continue to give "moral support" to the protesters.

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