Thursday 22 February 2018

Red shirts dig in for 'final battle' in Thailand

Thai government brands violent element of protesters as 'terrorists'

RED SHIRT: Protest leader Arisman Pongruangrong
RED SHIRT: Protest leader Arisman Pongruangrong

Sukree Sukplang in BANGKOK

Thai anti-government protesters stepped up security at their base in an upmarket Bangkok shopping centre yesterday, a week after bloody clashes with security forces killed 24 people.

Thousands of protesters gathered under leaden skies to commemorate the deaths as more permanent fixtures of medical supplies, sanitary facilities and foodstalls were set up.

The so-called 'red shirts' have pledged to turn the area into a "final battleground" to oust Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, forcing high-end malls to close and sending tourists fleeing the area.

Mr Abhisit said he would crack down on violent elements among protesters, whom he calls "terrorists", and on Friday put his army chief in charge of security operations at the expense of the deputy prime minister, Suthep Thaugsuban, after a bungled attempt to arrest red shirt leaders.

However, he made no indication that there would be an immediate attempt to dislodge the protesters, calling for patience.

"There has been more talk of a crackdown and possible attempts to take us in, so we have to make sure we are not infiltrated," protest leader Nattawut Saikua said, adding that the red shirts had no plans to march over the weekend.

The red shirt leaders would make new sleeping arrangements at undisclosed locations, Nattawut said, as leaders recruited more volunteers among protesters to become their "guards".

The heightened security came after some leaders were surrounded by police on Friday morning.

One made an escape by climbing down a hotel by rope, making headlines and highlighting security forces' failure at crowd control.

The red shirts back former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and want Mr Abhisit to call snap elections, something the Oxford-educated premier has refused to do.

They threatened to march to a nearby business district on Monday, targeting Bangkok Bank's headquarters.

"We are considering taking our fight to a business associated with the ruling elite," said a leader named Suporn Attawong.

Thailand's biggest bank was targeted in February by the protesters, who accused it of crony capitalism amid ties to Prem Tinsulanonda, a former premier and chief adviser of Thailand's revered king.

Mr Prem, an honorary adviser to the bank's chairman, is also accused of playing a role in the coup against Mr Thaksin, accusations which he has repeatedly denied.

The political crisis in Thailand has hit tourism, a mainstay of Southeast Asia's second largest economy, hard and caused a sell-off in the stock market which has given up almost all of this year's gains as foreign investors have sold heavily.

Protesters held a Buddhist ceremony to mark last weekend's clashes. Leaders gave monks alms and flowers, asking for blessings on behalf of their late comrades.

Sunday Independent

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