Pro-government rally raises the heat in Thai power struggle

Declaring their love of democracy, supporters of the Prime Minister stage their own show of force as explosions rock the capital. Oliver Wright reports from Bangkok
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The Independent Online

Thousands of pro-government supporters took to the streets of Bangkok yesterday in a significant show of strength, as tensions were further raised in the Thai capital by a series of explosions that left 51 demonstrators injured.

The explosions, which were not claimed, hit anti-government protest sites including Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's Bangkok office compound, which protesters seized in August, an anti-government television station, and a road near the main entrance to Bangkok's domestic airport, where protesters have been camped out for the last six days.

The Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) said they will stay near the main government buildings for as long as the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) continue to occupy Bangkok's two main airports.

But their main fear is that the army, whose senior leaders are sympathetic to the cause of PAD, may try to topple the government, under the pretext of ending the crisis. They hope their visible presence on the streets will deter this.

By early evening at least 20,000 people had gathered, most wearing red which is associated with their cause. Videos of the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra were being sold, along with red T-shirts and banners with his picture on.

"We love Thaksin. He is our hero," said one banner. Mr Thaksin, who is Mr Somchai's brother-in-law, was deposed in a 2006 military coup and fled Thailand to escape corruption charges. However, he still holds huge sway among his supporters – many of whom are poor and come from rural parts of Thailand, in contrast to the urban business classes who tend to support PAD.

Duang Yao said she was intending to sleep out until the threat to the airport had been lifted. "I love democracy and support the government," she said. "We have to fight to keep it. I will not go till we are safe."

On Saturday night, attackers set off grenades at the PAD demonstrations in the government compound and an anti-government television station, wounding 51 people, four of them seriously.

Yesterday, in a largely symbolic move, police ordered the airport protesters to disperse, banning gatherings of more than five people and warning offenders that they would be jailed or fined.

Some airlines are using a small, former military airport at theU-Tapao naval base, about 90 miles south-east of Bangkok. But authorities there have been overwhelmed by the hundreds of passengers cramming into the facility, trying to get their bags scanned through a single X-ray machine. More than 450 Thai Muslims who had been stranded at the main Suvarnabhumi airport for four days were bused to U-Tapao yesterday to board an Iran Air plane for the Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

On Saturday, hundreds of tourists gathered at Thai Airways' cramped ticket office looking for ways out of the country. Slumped in chairs, travellers swapped tales of being stuck in the airport for 23 hours. "As time goes on, it becomes more and more stressful," said Julie Lewis, 46, from Devon, who came to Thailand for a wedding. "This has really put a complete damper on the trip. Our last memory will be the fact that this happened."

"We have work to do, families to look after," said John Neilson, a 67-year-old computer consultant from Salisbury, Wiltshire. "I've got a £12,000 contract that starts Monday. If I'm not there, I don't get paid."

Some have taken buses hundreds of miles to airports on the southern island of Phuket, in the northern city of Chiang Mai or overland to neighbouring Cambodia and Malaysia.

Some Thais are looking to the judiciary for a way out of the crisis. The Constitutional Court is expected to rule soon on whether three parties in the governing coalition, including Mr Somchai's People's Power Party, committed electoral fraud. If found guilty, the parties would be dissolved immediately, and executive members including Mr Somchai would be barred from politics for five years.

Others are counting on the monarchy to end the standoff. Revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has repeatedly brought calm in times of turbulence during his62-year reign, will give his annual birthday-eve speech on 4 December.