Thai State of Emergency Sparks More Unrest

By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 13, 2009

BANGKOK, April 12 -- Thailand slid perilously close to chaos Sunday when opposition protesters called the government's decision to announce a state of emergency in Bangkok "a declaration of war against the people of Thailand."

The state of emergency bans large meetings and gives the government and security forces wide-ranging powers to arrest and detain opponents.

"The government decided to impose the state of emergency because we want to return the country to normalcy," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said on national television. "The government will try every way to prevent further damage. I ask the people to support the government in order to restore order in the country."

"The government has tried all along to avoid violence, but the protest has developed and they have used actions incompatible with the constitution," he said.

Anti-government demonstrators, fresh from derailing a key Asian summit on Saturday, reacted to the declaration by attacking the Interior Ministry, where Abhisit had made the announcement.

His car was severely damaged in the melee, but he managed to get out of the building after guards fired shots in the air.

The unrest is the latest of Thailand's recurrent spasms of political upheaval, the physical manifestation of a deep and intractable divide that is threatening to tear the country apart.

On one side of the political chasm are the "red shirts," who traditionally draw their support from the poorer, more rural areas of Thailand. Their flag-bearer, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is an unlikely champion of the poor. A former police lieutenant general, he is a telecommunications billionaire who made much of his money from a monopoly on the import of cellphones.

During his nearly six years as prime minister, he was considered autocratic and was dogged by persistent allegations of self-enrichment. But he endeared himself to the poor by providing cheap health care and improved education.

Thaksin's governing style enraged the middle class, business owners, the military and representatives of the royal family. They mobilized tens of thousands of people, who took to the streets and eventually provoked a military coup that removed Thaksin from power in 2006.

But when the military called elections, Thaksin's political heirs won, restarting a cycle that culminated in the week-long siege of Bangkok's main airports last year by the "yellow shirts."

Abhisit won power in a controversial parliamentary vote shortly after the airport siege was lifted. His Democrat Party managed to entice enough of Thaksin's former supporters to cross the floor and join them. The opposition called it the "silent coup" and accused the army and some advisers to the country's revered king of being behind the military coup as well as the deal that brought Abhisit to power.

In the center of Bangkok on Sunday, around the prime minister's office, thousands of demonstrators gathered, moving past the security cordon that police and soldiers had tried to establish. The carnival atmosphere behind the makeshift barricades was accompanied by trepidation, as young stewards handed out bottles of water and surgical masks, gear for enduring a tear-gas attack.

To control the protest, the government deployed troops dressed in full combat gear and armed with assault rifles. Armored vehicles were seen moving toward the center of the demonstration.

"The prime minister has given clear instructions that they should not hurt the demonstrators and that they should preserve their rights if they could," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, Abhisit's spokesman. But he added that the preservation of law and order was one of the primary responsibilities of a government.

Jakrapob Penkair, an opposition leader and former minister in Thaksin's government, spent the afternoon at the heart of the protest. He said the state of emergency was a declaration of war.

"At this point we have no plan to go offensive, but we will be aggressively defending ourselves if necessary," he said. When pressed, he declined to condemn those who had invaded the Interior Ministry.

Thaksin lives in exile to avoid a two-year sentence for breaking conflict-of-interest laws, charges he says were politically motivated. But he addressed an ecstatic crowd Sunday night via a telephoned message.

"This is a golden minute," he said. "We will make history, and there will be no more coups in Thailand. We have to help achieve democracy for all of us."

The escalation started Saturday, when about 600 protesters broke into a resort in the town of Pattaya where Asian leaders were meeting to discuss a joint plan to tackle the global financial crisis. The intrusion forced the summit to be cancelled.

The ease with which opposition protesters gate-crashed the prestigious regional meeting, forcing some powerful leaders to escape in helicopters from the hotel roof, has humiliated Abhisit internationally and made him look weak domestically.

Abhisit had wanted to showcase a newly stable Thailand after last year's protests. He called the Pattaya demonstrators public enemies.

"In this loss to the country, anyone or any group of people that announces a victory should be regarded as true enemies of Thailand," Abhisit said at a news conference in Pattaya. "Whatever status I have, I will never allow these people to become influential."

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