Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Protesters face police in Thailand

By Seth Mydans

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

BANGKOK: Surrounded by thousands of supporters who blockaded the prime minister's office Wednesday, leaders of a long-running anti-government protest challenged the police to enter and arrest them.

After a clash early in the morning that left several people injured, nearly 2,000 police officers with helmets and riot shields pressed in around the demonstrators, who were inside the gated compound but had not entered the building, called Government House.

The police said that a court had issued warrants for the arrests of nine protest leaders.

The protesters had stormed the office, as well as several other government buildings, on Tuesday as part of what the protesters called a final push after three months of demonstrations aimed at unseating the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

"This government has to resign," said one of the protest leaders, Chamlong Srimuang, speaking in the broad courtyard of Government House. "If we leave before this government resigns it means we are defeated."

Chamlong, 72, a former governor of Bangkok, led similar demonstrations that succeeded in ousting a government in 1992. That uprising ended in bloodshed when soldiers fired into the crowds, killing about 50 people.

"I'm ready to be arrested," Chamlong said. "If they come, we will let them arrest us. If they want to put us in jail, we'll go to jail. We will be here. We aren't going anywhere."

He drew laughter from his supporters when he said, "If we were afraid we would flee abroad" - a reference to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has sought political asylum in Britain, charging that he is being victimized by a series of politically driven corruption cases against him.

Thaksin was ousted in a coup in September 2006 while he was traveling abroad. He returned to Thailand early this year but chose not to come back 11 days ago from a trip to Beijing as court dates approached.

Calling themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy, or PAD, the protesters held large demonstrations in 2006 that weakened Thaksin and set the political atmosphere for the coup.

They accuse Samak, the current prime minister, of corruption and of being a puppet of Thaksin.

But apart from calling for the downfall of the government, they are not offering a political program or a solution to the country's divisions.

On Tuesday they blockaded several government ministries and briefly forced a pro-government television station off the air.

Their continuing protest, even after Thaksin fled into exile, has wearied many in Bangkok's middle class who had also opposed Thaksin. The newspapers on Wednesday expressed exasperation with the continuing turmoil.

Calling the protests "unjustified, unnecessary, provocative and illegal," the English-language daily The Bangkok Post said, "If the PAD really wants to bring down the government it should do so through the parliament. That is the proper, democratic place to do it."

The country's other major English-language daily, The Nation, said the protesters' motives "have gone from clear-cut to incomprehensible."

It added, "With most, if not all, key contentious political issues now in the hands of the courts, the PAD's highly provocative action yesterday was completely uncalled-for."

The People's Alliance, which is has ties to the country's conservative elite and to elements of the military, draws much of its public support with assertions that it is protecting the monarchy.

Fanning themselves vigorously with small straw fans, its supporters sat under makeshift awnings Wednesday, many of them dressed in bright yellow, the color of the monarchy.

Various speakers took turns addressing the crowd, mixing denunciations of the government with complaints that the city was not providing them with enough portable toilets. In interviews protesters asserted, like Chamlong, that they would stay as long as they had to. But some said they would soon run out of food.

It was not clear who was financing the prolonged demonstrations, many of whose participants had traveled from the countryside, but important business interests in the country oppose Thaksin and the people who surrounded him.

Chamlong said Wednesday that over the past six days he had received more than $250,000 worth of contributions in cash and gold to pay for the demonstrations. He did not name the donors.

On Tuesday, Samak said he had ordered the police to act gently and not to be provoked by the crowds with violence. "They want bloodshed in the country," he said, speaking in English. "They want the military to come out and do the coup again."

The army chief, Anupong Paochinda, who had been among the leaders of the 2006 coup, asserted that the military would stand aside this time and would not be involved in politics.

The coup scenario, which has been common over the past half century, lost much of its appeal after the ouster of Thaksin, when the military-led government that succeeded him was widely seen as incompetent and ineffectual.

When it stepped aside for new elections last December, Thaksin's supporters, led by Samak, filled the vacuum.

1 comment:

Ségolène said...

Hello, my name is Ségolène, I'm a journalist for the website France24 based in Paris.
I would like someone to comment what happened during the demonstrations in bangkok and to tell me what is the situation now.
Please can you contact me on my mail,
smalterre@france24.com.