Riot police and stick-wielding red shirts face off in city centre


The place was abuzz with talk that police would move in at dawn, writes Clifford Coonanin Bangkok

THEIR FACES covered with red bandanas, carrying sharpened sticks and waving banners, hundreds of red-shirted anti-government protesters faced down riot police in Bangkok as Thailand’s political crisis threatened to spill over into another bloody confrontation.

Police and soldiers made formations behind riot shields on Rama IV road as the protesters, who have made Bangkok’s central commercial district their own, gathered weapons for what was shaping up to be a showdown.

The red shirts, supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are demanding that the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, stand down and allow fresh elections.

Violent clashes between security forces and opposition protesters led to 24 deaths a week ago. The Songkran new year holiday cooled tensions as many of the red shirts headed back to their homesteads in the countryside for the celebration.

Now they are back – in their thousands. At one point, organisers with megaphones cleared the area of non-participants, their places taken by masked young men with sharpened sticks. The same organisers said: “Anyone with guns should put them away, we don’t want guns.”

Across the road, security forces gripped their riot shields and prepared for battle.

Faced with the defiant group of red shirts, they opted not to push things further, although this rumour-filled city was abuzz with talk that the police would move in at dawn.

There are signs that the army is losing patience with the unrest after five years of instability, and may yet stage a coup to impose stability, as it did in 2006 when Thaksin was unseated.

“Things were good under Thaksin. I love Thaksin. He’s not the Mafia. This is not just about him being from the north,” said Salawut, a small business owner. Eventually, police trucks sped away, to the cheers of the red shirts.

The army has vowed to punish the opposition if they carry out their threat to march on the Thai capital’s financial district today. The protesters are occupying the city’s upmarket shopping area, to the anger of merchants who are losing millions of baht every day, and the army has signalled that it will take action.

“We won’t let them go anywhere further,” army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd told TNN television. “Let’s say that we are left with no choice but to enforce the law. Those who do wrong will get their punishment. Taking back the area along with other measures are all included in enforcing the law. All this must be done.”

It all seems to point to the 18th coup of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign of more than six decades.

The government said last week’s bloodshed was caused by “terrorists”. It said that the same terrorists are amassing an arsenal of weapons to overthrow the state, a claim the red shirts deny.

Meanwhile, the anti-Thaksin yellow shirt movement is also mobilising, heightening the sense that Thailand is heading for civil war.

Supporters on both sides are wondering what the country’s beloved king, who is ill in hospital, will do about the crisis.

“Thaksin is just a prime minister, who goes after four years. But the king is in our hearts,” said one red shirt.