Thai Government Says Protesters Are Armed as Second Clash Looms

Bloomberg,  21April 2010

Thai Government Says Protesters Are Armed as Second Clash Looms

Thailand’s government said protesters occupying parts of central Bangkok for a sixth week are armed, an allegation refuted by demonstrators who say authorities are seeking to justify a crackdown.

Removing the anti-government demonstrators “is more difficult these days as protesters have weapons, especially war weapons,” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters in Bangkok today. “We have to be careful and try to prevent any incident.”

Pressure on Abhisit to reclaim the protest site amid luxury hotels and Southeast Asia’s largest shopping mall is mounting along with economic losses. A failed attempt to disperse the group on April 10 left 25 people dead and the unrest threatens to “decimate” tourism, according to the finance ministry.

The situation exerts “growing pressure on the military to take action over the next 24 to 48 hours,” PSA Asia, a Bangkok- based security and risk assessment consulting firm, said in a note to clients today. “There does not appear to be any genuine effort on either side to reach a political accord at this time.”

Abhisit has blamed “terrorists” within the protesters for the violence and said yesterday the conflict is “beyond myself” and “involves a plan to change the country’s political system.” The allegations suggesting the demonstrators are disloyal to King Bhumibol Adulyadej are being used as a justification to break up the protest, leader Jaran Ditapichai said in an interview late yesterday.

‘Hundreds Will Die’

“If troops come in here this time hundreds will die,” Jaran said, adding the group has rejected an offer from East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta to broker a solution. “Bangkok will become a battlefield.”

There are about 7,000 people in the protest site, a smaller figure than in previous weeks, Siriya Khuangsirikul, an assistant to the army spokesman, said by phone. The group is armed with grenades and M-16 assault rifles, she said.

Rally organizers have denied the group has weapons. As many as 100,000 supporters remained inside the encampment and more were coming from rural strongholds, Jaran said.
Abhisit has rejected demands from the mostly rural protesters to call an immediate election and pledged to enforce the law. Demonstrators who mostly support fugitive ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra have defied emergency rule since April 7 and ignored previous government warnings to avoid certain areas.

March Canceled

The protesters yesterday canceled a planned march after the army fanned out along a downtown financial district, helping stocks to rise the most in 15 months. Today the SET index gained 0.04 percent as of 11:47 a.m. local time.

Thaksin expressed loyalty to the royal family yesterday after signs appeared near the protest site suggesting he wanted to replace King Bhumibol as head of state, a position the monarch has held since 1946. The 82-year-old king has been hospitalized since September and hasn’t spoken about the protests.

“That action was done by those who didn’t mean well for the country and would like to intensify conflicts in the nation,” Thaksin wrote on his Twitter account.

Thailand’s Constitution says the king “shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.” Insulting the royal family is a crime in Thailand, with offenders facing as many as 15 years in jail.

Soldiers remain along the city’s Silom Road adjacent to the protest center, where they have blocked off sidewalks with razor wire. Across the street, protesters erected a barricade of bamboo sticks and rubber tires, one of six that block off entry points about a kilometer from the main stage.

“People are waiting to fight,” said Kamol Ruangthai, a 50-year-old tour guide from Bangkok who joins the demonstrations daily. “If the military comes in, the protesters will charge. They are not afraid of bullets.”