Friday, March 12, 2010

Protesters plan to paralyse Bangkok: city could burn

Friday, 12 March 2010 13:10 Larry Jagan 

Bangkok (Mizzima) - Thailand’s capital city is on red alert, bracing itself for a mass anti-government protest this weekend. Special security arrangements also went into force in Bangkok and surrounding areas on Thursday – only to be lifted in 10 days time. More than 50,000 policemen and security forces have been drafted into help maintain law and order, amid fresh rumours of a military coup.

The Thai government, foreign diplomats and business leaders are all warning of potential violence this weekend, when the Red Shirts, supporters of the ousted Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, aim to march a million supporters into the city’s streets.

Most analysts believe the situation is extremely precarious, with many fearing that things could get out of hand. “The country isred-shirt-demo3 certainly in real flux,” Kevin Hewison, a Thai expert and professor of at the University of North Carolina told Mizzima.

“Thousands and thousands of angry Red Shirts are heading down from the north-east – it will be the biggest demonstration Thailand has seen for nearly 20 years, even if it falls short of a million people -- and if the organisers cannot keep control, Bangkok could easily burn.”

Small groups of armed soldiers are already quietly patrolling the commercial areas and keeping a watchful eye on the main transport links, the underground and sky train. Trucks of soldiers are also positioned throughout the main centres of the city. Private security guards are more vigilant as they search customers entering the city’s major shopping malls.

Several public events planned for this weekend have been postponed or cancelled because of the fear of violence. At least three key Thai Premier League football matches have been rescheduled. The opening of an important Education Fun Fair, a three-day event due to start today, has been delayed for a month out of concern for the safety of children and their parents. Even a function on social enterprise development, which was to be addressed by the Prime Minister, has been postponed indefinitely.

Most schools and universities in central Bangkok have been closed. Many shopping centers are also closed.

“We plan to close the city down,” the international spokesman for the Red Shirts, Sean Boonpracong told journalists recently. “Though only through a peaceful protest,” he added.

The Red Shirts are demanding the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections. “We want [Prime Minister] Abhisit to dissolve parliament or suppress our movement,” another Red Shirt leader, Jaran Ditapichai told Mizzima recently. That’s the purpose of this protest, he added.

red-shirt-demo4The Red Shirts are supporters of the former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in September 2006. He fled the country in 2008 while on bail and has since made Dubai his base. He was later found guilty of abusing his power as premier and sentenced to two years in jail. He was stripped of more than one billion dollars of his assets, which had been frozen by the authorities, two weeks ago – that has given rise  to the current Red Shirt surge.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has called for calm. “People should not panic,” he told the Thai public in a television interview on Wednesday, after days of government warnings about the danger the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) or Red Shirts posed, including warnings of possible acts of sabotage during the weekend rally, based on government intelligence reports.

Earlier in the week the Finance Minister Korn Chatikananij told businessmen and diplomats at an American Chamber of Commerce dinner that the political situation remains fragile. “There is a very small minority of people trying to create instability and potential violence.” he told his audience.

The government insists that law and order will be maintained and the safety of people and property will be protected. To help ensure that the security forces have the power to effectively guard the city during the protests, which are due to start later today and converge on Bangkok by Sunday, the government has enforced the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Bangkok and key areas around the capital city.

This gives the military sweeping powers that many human rights groups, including the International Commission of Jurists feel are unnecessary, and lack accountability. It has been used seven times already in the last 12 months.

“The ISA is a law for exceptional circumstances,” Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s south-east Asia researcher based in Bangkok told Mizzima. “Its powers are vague and it effectively gives the military increased authority without adequate accountability or transparency.”

Fifty thousand extra unarmed security forces, mostly soldiers, have already been deployed under the ISA, according to the Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, in charge of the country’s security arrangements. Only uniformed SWAT team members will be authorised to carry weapons, he said.

The demonstrators will not be allowed to block major roads or entrances to public buildings, including Government House which was occupied by the Red Shirts opponents, calling themselves Yellow Shirts to show their support for the Thai king, for more than three months in late 2008. They also seized the international airport and virtually closed the country to the outside world for two weeks.

The security forces will only use peaceful means to prevent the protesters disrupting the capital, the Deputy Prime Minister promised. “But if the talk fails and they refuse to end the blockade, water or tear gas may be needed to disperse the demonstrators,” Mr Suthep said.

“No law can deter the Red Shirts and the government will see that the one-million march is for real,” boasted a UDD leader, Jatuporn Prompan.

Through the north and north-east, Red Shirt rallies have been gathering pace this week. In many provincial towns across the country’s poorest regions, hundreds of UDD supporters have been meeting and getting ready to travel to Bangkok for Sunday’s mass demonstration.

The plan is for most of them to be transported down to the capital city in pick-up trucks. More than 50,000 have been obtained and gassed up for the trip, a UDD spokesman, Boonpracong told journalists last week.

“It’s become a clear class war,” said Professor Hewison. “There is a real sense of injustice throughout the north-east -- amongst the rural farmers and the urban working class -- coupled with the poor in Bangkok, who want to see an end to what they see as unjust domination by the rich, urban elite, based in Bangkok.”

“We are not here for Thaksin, we are here for justice,” said Malee Thisoph from Korat, a major provincial city in the desperately poor north-east of the country, which is Thaksin’s main support base. She plans to join the march on Sunday. “We support Thaksin again,” she said “We don’t want any money from him. We just want him to come back.” 

At this stage, we plan to rally for three to five days,” Jaran said. This though may depend on the movement’s financial resources. The planned protest is estimate to be costing more than one billion baht for transport costs and providing meals for the supporters – that is on the basis of 200,000 Red Shirts turning up this weekend.

Thaksin is financing at least half of the red shirts’ costs, according to sources inside the movement. But for weeks UDD rallies have been collecting donations at every meeting, according to red shirt sources. So lack of funds may force the demonstrators to quit after Sunday.

But even if the marchers disperse after the weekend, it will not be the end of these protests. “Dissolving parliament is but the first milestone. Our goal is to change Thailand,” Jaran told Mizzima.

The plan is to retreat to the regions and start local actions against provincial authorities.



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