/ 14 April 2009

Bangkok calmer as protesters leave Govt House

Anti-government protesters began streaming out of the grounds of Government House in Bangkok on Tuesday, ending a siege of the prime minister’s office that had threatened to plunge Thailand into a fresh bout of chaos.

The red-shirted protesters, supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra who still commands widespread loyalty among the rural poor, were talking to troops in the area to coordinate on leaving the area safely, one of their leaders said.

Protesters had been camped at the building for three weeks and violence flared in Bangkok on Monday, with two people killed and more than 100 wounded. A peaceful end to the demonstration would be a boost for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and partly reassure investors fretting about Thai political risk.

Rating agencies had said that if unrest persisted, domestic and foreign investment could be badly hit and there was a risk that Thailand’s sovereign ratings could be downgraded.

The violence has also damaged Thailand’s crucial tourism industry.

On Monday there were violent clashes at a big intersection in the capital, which the red-shirted demonstrators had barricaded and which troops cleared with repeated charges, firing shots.

Black smoke had billowed over the city of 12-million people after protesters set fire to buses to block the troops. A fire was started in one government building.

Abhisit, who declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on Sunday, told Reuters it was a ”do-or-die” moment for the rule of law and he would not negotiate with Thaksin.

Financial markets remained closed for the three-day Thai New Year holiday, reopening on Thursday. The holiday meant the roads of Bangkok, normally clogged, were quiet this week.

The rest of the country was also quiet, with Sansern noting only two incidents outside Bangkok on Monday, when red-shirted protesters tried to stop transmission of a state television channel.

Two dead
Thailand’s intractable political crisis broadly pits royalists, the military and the urban middle-class against the rural poor loyal to Thaksin. Analysts say that even if this week’s violence subsides, the country’s divisions remain.

”The underlying problem of discord between the urban elite and the rural population remains in place, and a clear cut solution does not seem anywhere close at the moment,” Nomura International said in a research note.

Abhisit told Reuters that dissolving parliament in order to hold elections could lead to electoral violence, but he would listen to the grievances of some of the protesters.

”I’m not interested in making a deal with Thaksin,” he said.

”But I do listen to the concerns of some people who have joined the ‘red shirts’ in terms of democratic developments. In particular, if they are not satisfied with the constitution, if they think there may be some injustice in the system, I am happy to address those.”

The tourist sector was barely picking up after a one-week shutdown of Bangkok’s airports by protesters opposed to Thaksin late last year when a government allied to him was in power. Several countries have issued advisories on travel to Thailand.

Thaksin, ousted in a 2006 coup and living in exile to avoid jail on a corruption conviction, also popped up on international TV networks from an undisclosed location, claiming that many people had died on Monday.

A government minister and medical officers said two people had died, both of them in skirmishes between residents and protesters, many of whom were bused in from outside the capital.

Army spokesperson Sansern said a soldier patrolling in the city during the night had been seriously wounded by a shot fired by someone riding on a motorbike.

The Emergency Medical Institute said on Tuesday that 113 people, including soldiers, had been injured in the clashes.

On Saturday, protesters forced the cancellation of a high-profile Asian summit in Thailand, a big embarrassment for Abhisit, who took office only in December.

The political strife in Thailand died down for a while after he came to office through parliamentary defections that Thaksin supporters say were engineered by the army.

They are demanding new elections, and protests flared up after Thaksin said Abhisit must resign by April 8 — the day before the now abandoned East Asia Summit started. – Reuters