Asian leaders, and protesters, gather for summit

Thai protesters pushed through security to rally at a summit of Asian leaders on Friday, forcing their campaign to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva into the international spotlight.

Thai police vowed to use ”all means necessary” to clear the hundreds of protesters away from the beach resort hotel where the leaders of China, Japan, and 14 other nations were to gather for the three-day meeting.

About 400 red-shirted protesters faced off outside against at least 200 security forces — including riot police in full gear and army soldiers — who stood in formation outside the hotel.

The major security breach came after months of assurances from Abhisit’s four-month-old government that it would not let the kingdom’s long-running internal political turmoil disrupt the meeting.

”Today we are not coming to stop the summit. We have come to join the summit to represent the Thai people because Abhisit cannot be responsible for our rights,” said protest leader Arismun Pongreungrong.

”Abhisit is not the legitimate prime minister. We have to pressure him to resign.”

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban met briefly with the protesters before vowing the summit would go ahead as planned. It has already been postponed and moved to different cities several times.

”We are trying to negotiate with the protesters to ask them to see that this meeting has benefits for the nation,” said the minister, who is in charge of national security.

”We are using international standards of security protection for the 16 leaders,” he said. ”They will be safe.”

Protesters launched new mass rallies in Bangkok on Wednesday to push Abhisit to resign, insisting that he came to power undemocratically through a court ruling that toppled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s allies in December.

Thai authorities have gone out of their way to avoid clashes with protesters since mass violence at a rally by anti-Thaksin demonstrators in Bangkok last October left two people dead and 500 injured.

The protesters on Friday in Pattaya passed through the last line of unarmed riot police with little resistance, chanting slogans, cheering and clapping their hands.

Some protesters arrived on pick-up trucks and on scooters, moving to within 50m of the front doors of the luxury hotel and waving red posters reading ”Abhisit get out” and ”Thailand needs change”.

British-born Abhisit has repeatedly resisted calls to step down and his government hardened its stance Friday, saying it intended to arrest the leaders of the protests.

Abhisit said on Thursday that he had boosted security in Pattaya for the summit, which groups the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

China earlier this week expressed concerns about security at the summit but said it was confident the Thai government could keep protesters away. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was due to arrive later Friday.

The protests have marked the biggest challenge to Abhisit since he came to power.

Thaksin, a billionaire populist who still has a loyal following among the country’s poor but is loathed by the Bangkok elite, was ousted in a military coup in 2006.

Living in exile to avoid a two-year prison sentence for corruption, Thaksin has been egging on the protesters with nightly messages to them via videolink.

Abhisit announced a public holiday across Thailand on Friday in a bid to ease tension across the country.

Businessmen, professionals and supporters dressed in the red kits of European football teams joined forces for Friday’s rally.

Naris Hualprapai, a 44-year-old former Pattaya travel agent, said he was furious at the closure of Bangkok airport last year as part of huge protests that eventually brought down the Thaksin-allied government.

”I lost my business last year after they closed the airport,” he said as he joined his wife who was clad in the red and black of AC Milan. ”That was a direct effect on my family.”

Even a few foreigners joined in the noisy rally at the beachside town, which is a major tourist destination.

”I feel sorry for all these poor people,” said English dive instructor Michael Papillon (37) who was wearing a red cap with the insignia of his hometown Liverpool football club. – AFP



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