Thai protesters flout state of emergency

September 2, 2008 6:28:26 PM PDT
Thailand's embattled leader struggled to keep the peace and his grip on power Tuesday after declaring a state of emergency that was openly flouted by thousands of anti-government protesters in the capital.While Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej sought to tamp down newly violent unrest pitting pro- and anti-government protesters, he also was hit by an electoral commission finding that could disband his party and bar him from politics.

Samak said he had no choice but to impose emergency rule in Bangkok after a week of political tensions exploded into overnight rioting and street fighting between the largely prosperous urban protesters and government supporters, mainly from the country's impoverished rural majority. The fighting left one person dead and dozens injured.

His decree gives the military the right to restore order, allows authorities to suspend civil liberties, bans public gatherings of more than five people and bars the media from reporting news that "causes panic."

Samak and the army chief, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, both said authorities viewed emergency rule as a last resort and stressed they wanted to avoid violence.

"I did it to solve the problems of the country," Samak said in a televised news conference at a military headquarters in Bangkok. "I had no other choice. The softest means available was an emergency decree to end the situation using the law."

At a separate news conference, Anupong said troops in Bangkok's streets will be armed only with riot shields and batons.

"If the military has to get involved, it will not use force and will be on the people's side," Anupong said. He dismissed speculation the army was positioning itself to seize power again, less than two years after a 2006 coup.

"If the military uses force to stage a coup, it will create a lot more problems," the general said.

Tensions remained high as thousands of protesters who are demanding Samak's resignation defied the ban on assembly by staying camped out at the prime minister's official compound, known as Government House, which they seized seven days earlier.

As a precaution, City Hall ordered 435 public schools closed for three days, while some international private schools opted to shut for a week. The U.S. and other nations warned their citizens of the danger of violence in the capital.

By nightfall, there was no sign of renewed clashes or any attempt to evict the protesters. But the festive atmosphere of recent days had evaporated. Families and children were mostly gone and helmet-clad protesters armed with sticks patrolled the grounds.

"It's a temporary lull and a new storm is gathering," said Thitinan Pongsidhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Samak's "back is against the wall," Thitinan said. "If he enforces the emergency decree, there will be violence because the (protesters) are not budging. But if he doesn't enforce it, there is a sense of anarchy rule. It's a lose-lose situation for Samak."

Some anti-government groups taunted authorities by threatening to switch off water and electricity at police stations and other government offices Wednesday.

A labor federation for state employees said 200,000 of its members would go on strike to support the protesters. Their walkout could disrupt train, bus and air service and cut electricity and water to some government buildings, said Sawit Kaewwan, secretary-general of the State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation, which comprises 43 unions for state employees.

Yet another challenge confronted Samak when the Election Commission recommended Tuesday that his People's Power Party be disbanded for fraud during elections last year. Samak and other party leaders would be banned from politics for five years if judicial authorities upheld the ruling, though other members could form a new party and retain power by winning new elections.

Democracy in Thailand has a history of fragility, with the military staging 18 coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Samak's faceoff with anti-government protesters is only the latest conflict in two years of political tumult.

The group behind the anti-Samak protests, the People's Alliance for Democracy, formed in 2006 to demand the resignation of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, eventually paving the way for the bloodless coup that ousted him. Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, recently fled to Britain to escape corruption charges.

Many of the same allegations behind the uprising against Thaksin - corruption, stifling the media and the ruling party's buying votes from the rural poor with cash and other benefits - dominate the protests against Samak, who led Thaksin's allies to victory in last December's election.

Despite its name, the alliance - a mix of royalists, wealthy and middle-class urban residents, and union activists - argues Western-style democracy doesn't work for Thailand. It says the ballot box gives too much weight to the impoverished rural majority, who the alliance says are susceptible to vote buying that breeds corruption. It wants most lawmakers appointed rather than elected.

The prime minister has repeatedly insisted he will not bow to demands that he step down.

Samak gave no timeframe for how long emergency rule would be in effect but predicted it would be over "moderately quickly."

Thailand woke up Tuesday to jarring television images of bloody overnight street battles in which protesters from both sides fought with sticks, knives and slingshots.

Government supporters first scuffled with police, then clashed with anti-Samak protesters. One person, identified as a 55-year-old man, died from head injuries and nine others were hospitalized, at least three with gunshot wounds, the Health Ministry said.

Both sides dispersed after Samak deployed soldiers with riot gear - but no guns. The troops quickly withdrew from the streets, and pro-Samak activists said later in the day that they were leaving Bangkok to respect the emergency rule decree, Channel 9 television reported.

Inside the Government House compound, now crowded with tents, portable toilets and sleeping mats, one of the protest leaders, Chamlong Srimuang, remained defiant.

"We will stay and fight!" he told protesters. "Stay calm.

Don't fear. ... Can you be brave a little longer to save our country?"

One of the protesters, 66-year-old Kaewta Singhasaenee, said she was bracing for new clashes.

"If they come, I won't run," she said, clutching a bamboo rod and a helmet. "I love my country. I'm an old lady but I'm strong."


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