Thailand imposes emergency rule after street battle

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on Tuesday and gave the army control of public order after a man died in overnight clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters.

Under the sweeping emergency powers announced on television and radio, all public gatherings in the capital are banned and restrictions imposed on media reports that “undermined public security”.

“There is an urgent need to solve all these problems quickly. Therefore, the prime minister declares a state of emergency in Bangkok from now on,” read the emergency order after 100 days of anti-government protests.

Samak, who has refused to quit or dissolve Parliament in the face of the protests, said the security action would be restrained and not last more than a few days.

“I did this to douse the fire, not to cause a fire,” he told a news conference at a military headquarters.

Although the deployment of troops will come as welcome relief to the overstretched police, it raises the spectre of an army seizure of power less than two years after the military kicked out then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Leaders of the anti-government movement that has occupied Samak’s official compound for the past week said they would not be moving. They are camped out behind makeshift barricades of razor wire and car tyres.

“There are not enough jails to put us all into,” Chamlong Srimuang, one of the leaders of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) that is leading the anti-government protests, told thousands of supporters inside the compound.

He called for more people to join in the protest against Samak, whom the PAD accuses of being an illegitimate proxy for Thaksin.
His rallying cry will have gone out across the country via the PAD’s radio and satellite television channels.

Some schools and shops were shut in Bangkok, but traffic flowed with no major troop presence or tanks in the streets.

The airport, the main gateway for millions of tourists visiting one of Asia’s top holiday destinations, remained open.

But tourism, a major employer, would take a short-term hit as Australia, South Korea and Singapore issued travel warnings, with others likely to follow.

Soldiers sent in
At least one man was killed and 34 hurt in the overnight clashes between the PAD and pro-government supporters near Government House, the worst outbreak of violence since the PAD launched its street campaign.

About 400 soldiers armed with batons and shields were sent to back up police struggling to contain the skirmishes. Several shots were fired, but it was not clear by whom.

After the clashes, the street was strewn with rocks and broken glass, and several pools of blood were on the pavement.

Supporters of Samak, who leads a six-party coalition after coming first in December’s election, withdrew from positions near the PAD barricades to comply with the emergency order.

Samak’s announcement of emergency rule blamed certain people, whom he did not name, for “wreaking havoc” and said their actions were undermining the economy and national unity.

The PAD, a group of right-wing businessmen and activists whose 2006 street campaign contributed to the coup against Thaksin, argue that Samak is an illegitimate proxy for the former telecoms billionaire, now in exile in London.

Samak’s ruling People Power Party (PPP) faced a new threat on Tuesday when the election commission (EC) recommended the party be disbanded for vote-buying in the December poll. However, it could be months before the Supreme Court decides whether to accept the EC recommendation.

The PAD also paints itself as a guardian of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej against a supposed Thaksin campaign to turn Thailand into a republic, a charge denied by both Thaksin and the government.—Reuters

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