Bangkok a tinderbox as red shirt protesters keep pressure on


At least 26 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 injured in Thailand’s seven-week stand-off

WEARING black T-shirts and red scarves, the young men picked up sharpened bamboo sticks and ran to the barricade of tyres, bamboo and blue netting that divides the opposition to the government from the soldiers and riot police across the Silom Road junction in downtown Bangkok. The protesters are edgy, defiant and the atmosphere is tense.

“Take this,” said one young protester, his hands heavily tattooed, holding out a club to me. “Take them,” he said, pointing to bags of bolts and piles of rocks in the red shirt encampment.

Under one awning, young men queued up to be given shields, some home-made, some police shields taken during previous confrontations with the security forces. There were no signs of guns or grenade launchers.

All the while, loudspeakers broadcast messages of support, urging the protesters to defend the section of downtown they have held for weeks now, causing the city’s top hotels and shopping malls to close and devastating the tourist industry the country so desperately needs.

In this seven-week stand-off in Thailand, long a beacon of stability in southeast Asia, at least 26 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 wounded.

“I will take this and I will kill them,” said one protester, his face covered by a scarf, gesturing with the bamboo spear in his hand.

The protesters, mostly supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006, have been told to get rid of their red shirts and go undercover, to cause confusion among the soldiers and police who are camped out across the road.

The soldiers’ faces were tight with tension and they walked up and down the busy shopping street, carrying assault rifles and shotguns. Everyone in Bangkok is wondering when this situation will explode into something much worse.

The tone of the comments from the government has softened, after embattled prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected a compromise by the red shirts to allow fresh elections take place in a month’s time.

“We’re required to keep peace and return the area to normalcy,” government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.

The government is in a quandary. Abhisit has to act decisively, and he cannot allow his government to be held to ransom by the protesters.

However, he knows that if his government is to weather this crisis, he needs to win the hearts and minds of the working class and the rural poor, who feel disenfranchised by the way Abhisit was brought to power – through parliamentary manoeuvres rather than direct votes.

Killing hundreds of red shirts will not help his bid to boost his popularity. And his association with the Bangkok elite and the army means he has little support among those who are supporting the red shirts. He would probably lose an election if it were held tomorrow, as Thaksin enjoys huge support.

There have been a series of incidents, including one explosion that injured eight near the home of former prime minister Banharn Silapa-archa, who is allied to the ruling coalition.

Meanwhile, Thaksin is again playing a public role in the conflict. He fled Thailand ahead of a conviction on corruption charges, and is forbidden to return to Thailand.

But yesterday he said he was in contact with the protesters. Thaksin’s input adds to the feeling that this conflict is on the brink of slipping into civil war.

“We just fight for democracy. Let them fight for democracy and justice,” Thaksin said, speaking in Montenegro, one of a smattering of countries that have offered him a passport. Most countries have barred him.

Meanwhile, the other side of any potential civil war is taking shape. A rival protest group, the yellow shirts, is marshalling its forces. The yellow shirts occupied the prime minister’s office for three months and took over Bangkok’s airports for eight days in 2008.

They represent Bangkok residents and have wide support in the army and the government.