/ 25 April 2010

Bangkok braces for unrest after peace plan rejected

Bangkok braced on Sunday for more unrest a day after the Thai government rejected a peace overture from demonstrators offering to end increasingly violent protests in return for early polls.

The red-shirted supporters of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra told thousands of supporters to expect a crackdown and rescinded their offer to end a three-week occupation of Bangkok’s main shopping area if the government called elections in 30 days.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose six-party coalition government is under pressure from upper-class and royalist Thais to take a stern line with the “red shirts”, is sticking with an offer to call elections in December, a year early.

The mostly rural and urban poor protesters returned to their previous demand for immediate polls, which their political allies are well placed to win.

Abhisit said their peace overture looked insincere, designed only to boost their image and could not be considered amid threats. The protests, he added, were taking a worsening toll on Thailand’s economy, South-east Asia’s second biggest.

Hotel occupancy in Bangkok has crumbled to 20%, tourism operators say, down from about 80% in February, squeezing an industry that supports 6% of the economy.

“We will have to revise the growth rate again, especially after this month and last month, as we can see that the protests have had a big impact on tourism,” Abhisit said in his weekly television broadcast.

He said the government would have to revise down its forecasts of 4,5% economic growth this year.

The protesters threaten more aggressive measures, including laying siege to Central World, the second-largest shopping complex in South-east Asia, next to the stage at their main protest site.

“If you want Central World shopping mall back safely, you must withdraw army forces out of the nearby Rajaprasong area immediately,” said Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader.

The shopping centre at the Rajaprasong intersection has been closed since the protesters occupied the area on April 3.

Bangkok, a sprawling city of 15-million people, is on edge after a series of grenade blasts three days ago killed one person and wounded 88 in a business district, an attack the government blamed on the red-shirts, who deny they were responsible.

That followed an April 10 clash between protesters and the army that killed 25 people and wounded more than 800 in Thailand’s worst political violence in nearly two decades.

Crackdown fears
The army warned on Saturday it would forcibly disperse the protesters who have set up a self-contained village in a roughly 3 square-km area of the city, but it said wanted to first separate militants in the area from women and children.

Any attempt to disperse the protesters risks heavy casualties and the prospect of clashes spilling into high-end residential areas, which are slowly emptying of residents and workers as shops close and apartment building owners tighten security.

Thousands of troops, many armed with M-16 assault rifles, keep watch over red-shirts at several city intersections. Royalist pro-government protesters often gather outside their fortress-like barricade, with both sides hurling bottles.

Tens of thousands of red-shirts remain encamped in the central Bangkok shopping district, vowing to stay until parliament is dissolved and defying a state of emergency.

“This hardening of the battle lines between the two sides does not bode well for Bangkok’s security situation and a risk of another, and this time maybe even more violent, crackdown is immediate,” risk consultancy IHS Global Insight said in a note.

Analysts and diplomats say both sides want to be in power in September during an annual reshuffle of the military, an institution central to protecting and upholding the monarchy.

If Thaksin’s camp prevails and is governing at the time, big changes are expected, including the ousting of generals allied with Thailand’s royalist elite, a prospect royalists fear could diminish the monarchy’s influence.

Royalist generals are likely to resist that at all costs.

In recent days, the government has stepped up accusations the red shirts want to overthrow the monarchy, which the protesters deny, raising the stakes in a country where Thailand’s 82-year-old king is deeply revered but has appeared rarely in public since since September when he was hospitalised.

The protests are radically different from any other period of unrest in Thailand’s polarising five-year political crisis — and arguably in modern Thai history, pushing the nation close to an undeclared civil war.

Diplomats and analysts say the army’s middle ranks look dangerously split with one faction backing the protesters led by retired generals allied with Thaksin, ousted in a 2006 coup and later sentenced in absentia for corruption.

The red shirts say British-born and Oxford-educated Abhisit came to power illegitimately in December 2008, heading a coalition the military cobbled together after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin party that led the previous government.

They chafe at what they say is an unelected elite preventing allies of twice-elected Thaksin from returning to power through a vote. Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile, mostly in Dubai. – Reuters