'Red shirts' rule out negotiations

 

Thai "red shirt" protesters today ruled out negotiations with the government and said they would not give up their fight for early elections after clashes with security forces yesterday killed 20 people.

The red shirts, mostly rural and working-class supporters of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a coup in 2006, are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve parliament immediately and leave the country.

The fighting, the worst political violence in the country in 18 years and some of it in well-known Bangkok tourist areas, ended after security forces pulled back late on Saturday and the city of 15 million was quiet today.

But with no resolution to the row in sight and the prospect of more violence, analysts said the stock market, one of Asia's most buoyant this year, was likely to take a hit when trading resumes tomorrow.

The red shirt protesters continued to occupy two main areas of the capital. They made no attempt to come out of their bases and troops did not make any move toward them.

A government spokesman said the army had been told to withdraw troops from the shopping district to get some rest.

He also said no live rounds had been fired at protesters yesterday and the government had found that weapons not used by the army had been fired.

The government said it had appointed a senior prime ministerial aide to make contact with the red shirts to try to find a way to halt the confrontations, but having seen off the attempt to disperse them, they seemed in no mood to compromise.

"The time for negotiation is up. We don't negotiate with murderers," Weng Tojirakarn, a red shirt leader said. "We have to keep fighting," he said, adding they would hold their ground in Bangkok "out of respect for the dead".

Foreign investors have been ploughing money into Thai stocks but the outbreak of violence since the middle of last week caused them to pause. The stock market is open on Monday but closed from Tuesday to Thursday for the Thai New Year holiday.

"Tourism will be the very first sector to be hit and the Thai stock market should react negatively on Monday. The heavy foreign buying we have seen in the past month will hold back until the political situation is clearer," said Kasem Prunratanamala, head of research at CIMB Securities (Thailand).

There was tension outside Bangkok as well. Thai media reported that around 500 red shirts had again forced their way into the grounds of a Thaicom satellite earth station north of Bangkok, a flashpoint on Friday when the authorities blocked an opposition TV station.

Other reports said an M79 grenade was fired at the headquarters of army-owned Channel 5 TV station in the northern province of Phayao early on Sunday.

On Saturday, hundreds of protesters forced their way into government offices in two northern cities, raising the risk of a larger uprising against the 16-month-old, army-backed government.

"There is no precedent for something so massive, prolonged and disruptive on the part of the underclasses," said Federico Ferrara, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore.

"The people who are leading the protest now are people whose right to participate in government has never been fully recognised, hence the coups that have removed governments elected by the provincial electorate."

The protesters say Abhisit lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote following a court ruling that dissolved a pro-Thaksin ruling party. Thaksin's allies would be well-placed to win fresh elections.

The twice-elected Thaksin, in self-imposed exile since 2008 after sentenced to jail for corruption, was despised by many of the Bangkok elite but is popular with the poor for policies like cheap healthcare and microcredit grants to villages.

More than 800 people were wounded on Saturday as troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas at thousands of demonstrators, who fought back with guns, grenades and petrol bombs near the Phan Fah bridge and Rajdumnoen Road in Bangkok's old quarter, one of the two bases for the month-old protest. Four soldiers were among those killed.

In a televised statement, Abhisit expressed regret to the families of the victims and said the army was only allowed to use live bullets "firing into the air and in self-defence".

Among those killed was Reuters TV cameraman Hiro Muramoto, a 43-year-old Japanese national.

"Journalism can be a terribly dangerous profession as those who try to tell the world the story thrust themselves in the centre of the action," said Reuters Editor-in-Chief David

Schlesinger. "The entire Reuters family will mourn this tragedy."