Thai plan to choke Red Shirts protest zone on hold
BANGKOK (AP) – The Thai government suspended its plan to cut water and electricity supplies to anti-government demonstrators camped in a posh central Bangkok neighborhood, heeding pleas from residents and foreign diplomats who live and work there.
But it also withdrew an offer to hold elections in November, bringing Thailand’s months-old political crisis back to square one, days after it appeared that a compromise was imminent.
The “Red Shirt” protesters believe Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s coalition government came to power illegitimately through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and have been demanding new elections in street rallies since March 12. Clashes with security forces and other violence have left at least 29 people dead and 1,400 injured.
A government blockade of the Red Shirts’ protest zone in central Bangkok was supposed to start Wednesday at midnight, but water and electricity were available as usual Thursday morning in the upscale Rajprasong area.
Thousands of Red Shirts protesters have camped for two months on the streets and parks in a 1-squrae-mile (3-square-kilometer) area, which is home to several embassies, shopping malls, hospitals and upmarket apartments.They have set up their own security checkpoints.
Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, the spokesman of an agency in charge of suppressing the protest, said late Wednesday that the plan to choke off essential services to the “Red Shirt” demonstrators was put on hold because of the repercussions it would have on other residents.
He said European diplomats and others expressed concern to the Bangkok governor that the blockade would effect residents more than the protesters.
“We have to assess who is going to face the impact more: the protesters or people living in the area,” told The Associated Press.
There was no sign of increased police or troop presence, and traffic was moving as usual through the bamboo-and-tire barricades set up by the Red Shirts on the southern and eastern edges of the protest camps.
Sansern, said security forces would “not use force at this stage,” but left open the possibility of more violence if the protesters refuse to disperse.
With the government’s tougher tone, chances of a negotiated settlement appeared almost doomed, just days after the two sides had agreed in principle to a reconciliation plan. But the protesters later said they would stay put until the deputy prime minister faces criminal charges for violence during the protests.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said Abhisit’s offer to hold November elections – one year before his term expires – was now off the table because the protesters had refused to budge.
From behind their barricades, leaders of the Red Shirts were defiant.
“Firstly, we are using our own electricity generators, so we are not dependent on the public power source,” said one, Jatuporn Prompan. “Secondly, if the government decides to cut water … this will also affect half of the city. So we do not care about the government’s threat.”
Another leader, Nattawut Saikua, told reporters that “We have made a decision to hold our ground here to call for justice for our people. We are going to stay here no matter what happens.”
Major shopping malls along the occupied streets closed weeks ago and some luxury hotels have shut their doors as the demonstrators listen to speeches on makeshift stages set up at various intersections. The occupation has dealt a blow to an economy that depends largely on tourism.
The U.S. Embassy posted a notice to Americans about the intended blockade, and reiterated earlier warnings that “U.S. citizens should avoid travel to and lodging in this area and the areas in and around all demonstrations, if possible.”
Abhisit has set no exact timeframe for escalating the crackdown if the siege fails, government spokesman Panitan told cable television network TNN. “He simply said he wants the protest to end soonest.”
The Red Shirts, who are largely drawn from the rural and urban poor, see Abhisit’s government as serving an elite insensitive to the plight of most Thais. The protesters include many supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist leader who was accused of corruption and abuse of power and ousted in a 2006 military coup.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire who fled overseas to avoid a corruption conviction, is widely believed to be helping to bankroll the protests. He claims to be a victim of political persecution.
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Denis D. Gray, Thanyarat Doksone and Kay Johnson contributed to this report, with additional research by Warangkana Tempati.