Tens of thousands of anti-government “red-shirt” demonstrators are expected to take over the heart of Bangkok on Saturday as they intensify their two-week campaign to force the Thai government from office.
The protest leaders insist they will continue their largely peaceful action until Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister, resigns but the government says it will never give in to threats. The result is a grim war of attrition.
Despite dramatic scenes of demonstrators scattering their blood across the streets, the protesters have avoided confrontation – even when 60,000 descended on Bangkok last week – and the security forces have kept their distance. But a series of small, unexplained explosions at government offices and barracks have kept the political temperature elevated.
Mr Abhisit has won plaudits for his calm handling of the protests but there are signs that he is hardening his stance. The Internal Security Act, which gives the security forces enhanced powers, has been extended for another week to cover Saturday’s rally, and army officers manning security posts in Bangkok have been given weapons after the government said it was “very concerned” about the blasts.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, the government spokesman, insists that the “situation is becoming more normal” but a sense of unreality lingers. Last week’s cabinet meeting was held at the ministry of public health behind a screen of 3,500 security officers, and the opposition has launched an exhibition of art works painted in blood collected from the protesters – symbolic of their willingness to sacrifice for democracy – on one of Bangkok’s main thoroughfares.
The anti-government protesters are a loose coalition of supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial former prime minister who was removed from office in a military coup four years ago, backed by opponents of the coup and pro-democracy activists. They believe Mr Abhisit’s administration lacks legitimacy.
But running underneath the immediate concerns are more fundamental questions posed by a country where many feel that the slow growth in political enfranchisement has failed to keep pace with economic development.
Thailand is no stranger to political upheaval. Since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, there have been 11 coups, 18 constitutions and 27 prime ministers, many of them unelected.
Some more radical protesters have urged a class war”, raising the spectre that the protests, whose organisers have so far sought to minimise damage to the Thai economy, might spill over to harm the business environment.
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