Red Shirt protesters storm Bangkok TV station; Thai military responds with force
The Thai military used force against Red Shirt protesters today for the first time in an escalating stand-off that began March 11. Authorities had shut down the opposition TV station amid a Bangkok state of emergency.
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Amid a state of emergency in Bangkok, thousands of Red Shirt protesters swarmed an antigovernment television station in Thailand’s capital on Friday, vowing to reinstate its transmission after the government shut it down on Thursday. The scuffle is the latest show of defiance in a month-long bid by the antigovernment demonstrators to unseat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whom they accuse of stealing power through a military-backed coup in 2006.
Embattled Thai authorities shot back on Friday by firing tear gas and water cannons at protesters, the government's first use of force against the demonstrators. Authorities warned that harsh measures could be used to put down future demonstrations.
With Thailand’s capital virtually shut down, the fresh row signaled that instability in the country could be reaching a new stage. To that effect, the army on Friday deployed more soldiers to guard the house of Mr. Vejjajiva, fearing that protesters may try to swarm it as part of a larger rally, the Bangkok Post reported. On Wednesday, protesters broke through a line of defense to penetrate the country’s Parliament building, forcing some legislators to flee by helicopter. The government imposed a state of emergency in the immediate aftermath.
Friday’s developments featured a similar breach. Red Shirt protesters pushed through the barb-wired fence surrounding the TV station People’s Channel, considered one of the main mouthpieces of the protest movement. The government had shut down the antigovernment channel on Thursday, along with several websites the Red Shirts used to organize protests, saying the media outlets incited violence. In the ensuring melée, rock-hurling protesters quickly overpowered the security forces, reports the Washington Post.
The seizure appeared to end peacefully, however, with some protesters shaking hands with security forces. Once inside, they issued a demand for the government to turn the channel back on. It was not immediately clear by Friday afternoon if their demands had been met.
In Thailand’s growing protests, media is a key tool for both the mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and also for the new government that replaced him in a 2006 army-backed coup, as the Monitor reported recently. Last month, when protesters dumped blood at the prime minister's office and home, pro-government media hyped up the health risks and the ethics of waste, while antigovernment media focused on the symbolism of Thais willing to shed blood for the cause.
Unrest of this kind has crippled Thailand, particularly the capital, since March 11, when protesters came out in force to demand the dissolution of the current government and the holding of fresh elections. Thai authorities have talked tough on the demonstrations, but done little to stop them, as Al Jazeera points out. On Thursday, the government issued arrest warrants for up to 27 protest leaders, but has so far made no actual arrests. And while authorities accuse the Red Shirts of breaching the terms of the state of emergency, Vejjajiva has vowed not to crack down on them, and has in fact negotiated with rather than confront them.
The use of tear gas and water cannons on Friday could signal, however, that the government’s light touch might be hardening.