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07 Apr 2010 14:54
Thailand’s embattled premier declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on Wednesday after protesters stormed Parliament in a dramatic escalation of their bid to topple the government.
Lawmakers fled and several senior government figures were airlifted by military helicopter after red-shirted supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra forced their way into the country’s parliamentary compound.
In an effort to contain the crisis, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva invoked emergency rule, which bans public gatherings of more than five people and gives broad powers to the police and military.
“The state of emergency aims to resolve the situation and bring a return to normal,” Abhisit told a nationally televised news conference.
He said the mass rallies were unconstitutional and had tarnished the country’s image, eroding investor confidence.
It is the fourth time since 2008 that emergency law has been declared in the capital because of political turmoil.
The government will disperse demonstrators in the city’s commercial heartland, arrest protest leaders and search their homes, Satit Wonghnongtaey, minister attached to the premier’s office, told reporters.
Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters have refused to leave Bangkok’s main shopping and hotel district, where they have been since Saturday, disrupting traffic and causing major stores to shut.
Security forces have so far refrained from using force to disperse the red-clad movement, who are mostly from Thailand’s rural poor and vowed to keep up their demonstrations despite the emergency decree.
“We have to prepare for another war. If the military comes you should not panic—just stay put,” Reds leader Veera Musikapong told protesters.
‘Courage, patience and unity’
The protesters say the government is illegitimate because it came to power with army backing through a parliamentary vote in December 2008 after a court decision ousted Thaksin’s allies from power.
Abhisit left a Cabinet meeting at Parliament when he learnt that the Reds were approaching, moving to a military barracks in the city’s northern outskirts, where he has mostly been based since the protests began mid-March.
He cancelled a planned trip to the United States for a nuclear security summit next week due to the unrest.
The Reds have been emboldened after the police and army backed down on Tuesday following a tense stand-off in the capital’s tourist heartland.
The authorities have threatened the protesters with a year in jail but so far no arrests have been made.
The mainly poor and rural followers of Thaksin, a billionaire telecoms tycoon who lives abroad to avoid a jail term for corruption, fervently support the populist policies he introduced before his ouster in a 2006 coup.
Thaksin sought to rally his supporters on Wednesday in a brief message through micro-blogging service Twitter, praising their “courage, patience and unity”.
On Tuesday protesters threw plastic bottles, pushed against police barricades and later took over the streets of central Bangkok on motorcycles and in pick-up trucks, pouring into the capital’s financial district.
The military has mounted a heavy security response, deploying 50 000 personnel at one point to try to contain the protests, which drew as many as 100 000 people on the first day on March 14.
But the government wants to avoid a repeat of last April’s clashes with Red Shirts that left two people dead, six months after riot police took on the rival Yellow Shirts in bloody scenes outside parliament.
In the latest unexplained blast since the rallies began, police said a grenade exploded shortly after midnight next to a supermarket in Bangkok, injuring one man.—AFP
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