Protesters Battle Thai Security Forces

Postby Wizard CaT » Sat May 15, 2010 12:18 pm

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142 ... TopStories

JAMES HOOKWAY wrote:BANGKOK—The Thai army designated an area of central Bangkok a "live firing zone" Saturday, in a warning to protesters and local residents, and the U.S. Embassy issued a travel warning advising American citizens to stay away.

The embassy also offered to evacuate family members of its staff in the volatile Thai capital. Until Saturday, the U.S. had placed Bangkok under a "travel alert" that advised citizens to defer nonessential travel.

Beleaguered Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he is attempting to quell violence with minimum and "restore normalcy with minimal loss" to the capital.

The prime minister spoke on national TV in his first comments since violence erupted Thursday. His comments came Saturday after clashes between troops and Red Shirt antigovernment protesters left 22 people dead and more than 170 injured.

Soldiers unrolled razor wire across roads leading to the central area, Ratchaprarop, and pinned Thai and English-language notices saying "Live Firing Zone" and "Restricted Area. No Entry."

The signs indicate soldiers may shoot protesters still hiding there.

Ratchaprarop is a mostly commercial area with high-rise buildings, hotels and shops. It was the scene of some of the worst fighting Friday night between troops and Red Shirt protesters.

At the entrance to Silom Road, Thailand's Wall Street, troops on Friday fired volleys of gunfire toward protesters gathered opposite behind a stockade constructed from kerosene-dipped tires and sharpened bamboo staves.

Some of the protesters were armed with crude spears and catapults, and fears were growing that violence would sweep over the area as the sun went down. As night fell, the sound of explosions echoed around the area.

The conflicts around the protesters' encampment, in Bangkok's swankiest shopping district, suggested a widening military clampdown and an apparent assassination attempt Thursday against a prominent Red Shirt leader had failed to break the spirit of the group's more militant demonstrators. The leader, renegade army Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, remained in critical condition in the hospital after being shot in the head by an unknown shooter. The injured include a Thai photographer and a foreign journalist, and at least 40 people have been killed in the current series of antigovernment protests.

Red Shirt leaders accuse army snipers of trying to assassinate Gen. Khattiya, an outspoken critic of the government who defected to the Red Shirt movement two years ago. The army denies it shot him.

Throughout Friday, gunshots could be heard near Bangkok's main business district, while smoke billowed from a torched bus, and burning tires obscured a major highway near the U.S. and Japanese embassies in the city. Helicopters buzzed around the area as residents either stayed indoors or sought shelter in other parts of the city.

The Red Shirt protesters—a mix of rural populists and die-hard supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra—are demanding immediate elections to rebalance Thailand's political system, which they say is manipulated by the country's traditional military and bureaucratic elites.

Mr. Thaksin, a telecommunications magnate, was removed in a military coup four years ago after emerging as a potent threat to the country's established order thanks to his easy credit policies, affordable health-care policies and an aggressive—some critics say illegal— campaign against drug traffickers that left thousands of people dead. He is now living in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid imprisonment on a corruption conviction.

Since then, the country has lurched between pro-Thaksin administrations and army-supported governments whose leaders accuse Mr. Thaksin's followers of trying to undermine Thailand's revered monarchy.

Mr. Vejjajiva offered protesters an early election, but he retracted that offer this week after the demonstrators refused to call off their two-month long rally.

On Friday, it was unclear how the army leaders would proceed. Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said the army's immediate objective was to prevent Red Shirt protesters from joining the rally. Army chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda previously had emphasized that political problems should be solved by political means, and not by military intervention.

People familiar with the situation say Gen. Anupong is also aware that many of the protesters have relatives serving in the armed forces, and that the Red Shirts are threatening to seize government facilities in other parts of Thailand if a full-blown crackdown is launched.

Soldiers initially used loudspeakers to explain to protesters that they were doing their duty and asked for the Red Shirts' cooperation as the military began erecting a cordon and closing roads around the area. Local television footage showed protesters trying to expand their own perimeter at the same time, leading to a series of skirmishes around central Bangkok.

Mr. Panitan, the government spokesman, blamed the protesters for initiating the clashes and said the protest area would "soon" be under government control.

Some analysts foresee the sporadic clashes and political conflicts continuing for a substantial period of time. If Mr. Abhisit does call early elections—by law, he must call elections by the end of 2011—the current crisis might be the forerunner of a broader conflict in what was one of Southeast Asia's more stable nations.

The nub of the problem: Neither the Red Shirts nor their pro-military opponents appear ready to accept the outcome of a popular vote. "Whenever the next election comes, things will get really chaotic," said Paul Chambers, a professor at Germany's Heidelberg University and an expert on Thailand's armed forces. "There could be pandemonium on a much wider scale."

Already, yellow-wearing monarchists have threatened to take to the streets to clear their Red Shirt opponents from Bangkok, partly prompting Mr. Abhisit's government and the armed forces to take a harder stand against the protesters in recent days.

Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij estimated the demonstrations could wipe two percentage points off Thailand's economic growth rate this year, which the government currently projects at 4.5%.

Now, with some Red Shirt leaders and parliamentary opposition leaders recommending calling off the protests and hardliners digging in, the protest movement is becoming more fractured and subsequently less predictable.

One militant protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan, told dancing crowds of demonstrators at the Red Shirts' main stage Thursday that the confrontation between protesters and troops is worsening. "I want to warn Abhisit Vejjajiva that this is getting close to civil war," said Mr. Jatuporn.

At the same time, analysts say the government and the military now appear resolved to hold on to power, at least until the army high command can complete its annual reshuffle—expected in September—and appoint a fresh contingent of anti-Thaksin officers to key positions without any interference from any pro-Red Shirt government.

On Thursday, the authorities began cordoning off parts of the city to prevent Red Shirt sympathizers from swelling the numbers of demonstrators at the main, one-square-mile protest site where many women and children are still camped out in baking temperatures. At times, cellphone signals have also been jammed while authorities have threatened to cut water and electricity supplies to the area, but some Red Shirt leaders and many of their followers remain defiant.

"The use of force will not work. The government can't control the situation," said protest leader Nattawut Saikua.

—Wilawan Watcharasakwet and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@wsj.com
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