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News Analysis
Scores of Thais Injured in Army-Protester Clash
President Lee Myung-Bak Hurriedly Returns to Seoul
By Richard S. Ehrlich
Bangkok Correspondent
A band of protesters charge into the Royal Cliff Grand Hotel in Pattaya, where Asian leaders are staying, on April 11, 2009. The ASEAN + 3 (S. Korea, China, Japan) Summit has been cancelled due to the massive anti-government demonstrations sweeping the Thai capital.

BANGKOK, Thailand — The government declared a "state of emergency" on Sunday (April 12, 2009) after failing to stop protesters who attacked the prime minister's car and seized armored personnel carriers, one day after forcing foreign leaders to evacuate by helicopter from an Asian summit in Pattaya.

"The protesters were trying to hurt me, and smash the car," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said on nationwide TV on Sunday (April 12), appearing confused and weak after escaping unscathed in Bangkok.

Mr. Abhisit's emergency decree spotlighted the problem Thailand has suffered during the past three years. The security forces are unable, or unwilling, to restore law and order, or obey the constitution.

"The government will try every way to prevent further damage. I ask the people to support the government in order to restore order in the country," Mr. Abhisit said on TV.

Many tourists and foreign businessmen expressed fear after the recent scenes of anarchy, and wondered if Thailand was safe.

The protests were able to swell partly because Thailand is a Buddhist-majority society, and many military and police officers apparently do not want to shoot fellow Thais, or risk being publicly blamed for any resulting deaths.

During the past few days, police merely tried to push protesters back, but then relented, allowing them to storm the East Asian Summit in the beach resort of Pattaya on Saturday (April 11), and use heavy objects to smash the prime minister's car on Sunday (April 12) outside the Interior Ministry.

Riot police, wearing steel helmets and padded uniforms, stood mostly idle during the assaults, seemingly afraid to challenge the protesters because the government ordered police not to carry weapons when confronting them.

After previous bloody crackdowns during the past 36 years, the security forces' reputation was severely damaged whenever the death toll rose, resulting in today's relatively gun-shy army and police.

The prime minister shares the dilemma of how to crush the current angry mobs, who are armed with clubs, rocks, and other makeshift weapons, without shooting them.

The state of emergency, in Bangkok and five provinces, may embolden the security forces to act more decisively to stop the threats to Thailand's economy and institutions.

Hundreds of extra soldiers and police guarded Bangkok's vital installations on Sunday (April 12), including the bus and railway stations, King Bhumibol Adulyadej's palace, government offices, and main intersections.

Divisions within the security forces are complicating the chaos, because the army staged a bloodless coup in September 2006 and tore up the constitution.

Some may be itching to again tighten the reigns on this Southeast Asian nation's squabbling civilian administrations.

"Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, on Sunday night (April 12), expressed confidence that there would be no coup," the Nation newspaper said.

Many within the military, however, support Mr. Abhisit's four-month administration, after helping to push out his predecessor.

In November, the army and police shocked the international community by not preventing thousands of anti-government protesters, dressed in yellow shirts, from blockading Bangkok's two airports for eight days, stranding 300,000 travelers here and abroad.

The pro-military, royalist, yellow shirts' blockade doomed the government, and allowed British-born Mr. Abhisit to cobble together politicians within Parliament in December, and emerge atop a vulnerable coalition.

Stung by their loss of power, the toppled politicians and their supporters are now copying the yellow shirts' tactics of urban insurrection, and using thousands of protesters — this time wearing red shirts — to try and oust Mr. Abhisit.

The red shirts call themselves the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship.

"Last week their supporters grew to 100,000 in Bangkok.

"The red shirts are now ready to fight with the brutal government in every possible way," one of their leaders, Jakrapob Penkair, said in an SMS text message to journalists on Sunday (April 12).

Lurking above Thailand's worsening crisis is a former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who has remained in self-exile since the 2006 coup, based mostly in Dubai.

Mr. Thaksin is a convicted fugitive dodging a two-year prison sentence for corruption, and faces a slew of other corruption-related cases, along with his wealthy relatives and some colleagues.

After the coup leaders allowed elections, Mr. Thaksin's candidates won, but their administrations repeatedly collapsed.

They were finally defeated when they could not end the airport blockade.

Mr. Thaksin and his red shirt supporters hope the protests will result in a nationwide election, which they are confident they can again win, based on their populist support among Thailand's lower classes and rural majority.

Mr. Abhisit apparently fears an election because of Mr. Thaksin's previous majority victories.

While many among Bangkok's middle-class and elite support Mr. Abhisit and the yellow shirts, class warfare only partially explains the divisions fueled by Thailand's abysmal education system, strict hierarchy which muzzles free speech, and a sharpening urban and rural split.

"I know who the reds are in the ministry," said Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, who critics blame for earlier publicly supporting the yellow shirts during their airport blockade.

The red shirts promised not to assault the airports, but parked about 100 taxis at a downtown intersection on Friday (April 10), crippling Bangkok during the evening rush hour and delighting their supporters.



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Mr. Richard S Ehrlich serves as the Bangkok correspondent for The Seoul Times. He earned his MS degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Mr. Ehrlich has reported news from Asia for world's premier news organizations since 1978. He coauthored "Hello My Big Big Honey!," a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

 

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