Army deploys against Thailand's 'red shirt' protesters

Thailand's 'red shirt' protesters canceled a march Monday as the Army fanned out to block them. But they vowed to continue their demonstration, now at five weeks, until Prime Minsiter Abhisit steps down and calls elections.

By , Correspondent

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    Thailand's anti-government Thailand's 'red shirt' protesters shout insults from behind razor wire Monday, in Bangkok.
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Combat troops deployed Monday in Bangkok’s financial district to block a planned march by Thailand's “red shirt” protesters who have camped out in the capital for five straight weeks.

The added pressure came as an opposing “yellow shirt” group threatened a massive counterdemonstration next week if the protests continued.

Protest leaders canceled their march but vowed to continue their disruptive campaign to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and hold elections.

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The standoff erupted into violence on April 10 that left at least 25 people dead and several hundred injured at a rally site that has since been abandoned in favor of a downtown shopping area.

The soldiers who took up positions near the consolidated rally site were the first major deployment since the April 10 bloodshed, which Mr. Abhisit blamed on “terrorists” among the red-shirted protesters. But it’s unclear if it marks the start of a fresh crackdown or a defensive crouch against the ebullient Red shirts.

‘Yellow shirts’ fight back

A day earlier, the yellow shirts threatened to counterprotest in seven days if the government failed to end the protests. The royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy, which paralyzed the capital during marathon 2008 protests that included airport seizures, sees the red shirts as a front for fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The renewed tensions snapped a vacation cool-off in Bangkok, which last week celebrated Thailand’s New Year. Monday was the first day back to work for office workers on Silom Road, a strip of banks, bars, and corporate offices, who found armed troops guarding the street.

Abhisit has rejected calls for his resignation and insisted that he can restore order. He has put Army chief General Anuphong Paochinda in charge of hunting down red shirt leaders wanted under a state of emergency that has been in force since April 7. Several leaders slipped away last Friday from a hotel that police had been sent to search.

But flushing out thousands of protesters from their rally site will be tricky after the last failed crackdown, says Pavin Chachavalpongpung, a researcher at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “If they want to do it without using force, it’s not going to work,” he says.

Anger over April 10 bloodshed

At the rally site, vendors sell roughly edited DVDs of amateur and news media clips of the April 10 clashes, the worst in Bangkok since 1992. Those gathering to watch the bloody footage put the blame squarely on Abhisit, the ruling Democrat Party, and the influential military.

“It’s no longer the Democrat Party,” says Kamoen, a pharmacist and red shirt follower who declined to give his family name. “It’s a military party. Abhisit has sold his soul to the devil.”

The angry crowds mirror those who rallied in 2008 under the PAD’s yellow banners and helped topple an elected pro-Thaksin government. The threat by PAD leaders to mobilize their forces in opposition to the Reds adds to the pressure on Abhisit to disperse the protests, which have begun to choke Bangkok’s tourist industry and its broader economic recovery.

But Sarocha Pornudomsak, a prominent PAD member, struck a more cautious note. “I don’t think it makes sense to have an all-out rally by the PAD. It’s not time yet.”

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