Sharp sticks and shields: Thais prepare for battle

Eyewitness

The protesters have camped for weeks in Bangkok preparing for battle. The tyres, bamboo and netting that form the barricade that divides the government opposition from the ranks of soldiers and riot police is growing. The mood is defiant; the atmosphere tense.

At one point, the protesters believe that the authorities are about to break through. The protesters run for the barricade, grabbing sharpened bamboo sticks to retain their ground. "I will take this and I will kill them," says one protester, a scarf covering his face.

This is the front line of the battle that has closed down part of Bangkok. For the first time since the start of his country's political chaos, Thailand's ailing king spoke yesterday but did not directly address the sometime violent seven-week anti-government protests that have left at least 26 people dead and nearly 1,000 wounded.

In vague comments from the hospital where he has been since September, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 82, said the judges should set an example by acting properly and "this will give people the determination to perform their own duties as well."

In central Bangkok, the protesters, known as the Red Shirts, were receiving encouragement from another quarter. Protest leaders with loudspeakers exhorted several thousands to continue defending a shopping and business district they have effectively closed down.

Many heeded calls by their leaders to dump their red shirts and go undercover – many wore black with red scarves – in an attempt to sow confusion among the soldiers and police who are camped out across the road.

Under one awning, young men queued up to be given shields, some homemade, some police ones snatched during earlier confrontations with the security forces.

"Take this," says one young protester, his hands heavily tattooed, holding out a club to me. "Take them," he adds, pointing to bags of bolts and piles of rocks in the redshirt encampment.

The protesters are mainly supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 but still commands huge support – unlike the incumbent Abhisit Vejjajiva. Mr Abhisit has rejected holding fresh elections in a month's time, knowing he would be unlikely to win. His association with the Bangkok elite and the army means he has little backing among Red Shirt supporters.

Mr Thaksin fled Thailand before a conviction for corruption and is forbidden to return. But yesterday he said he was in contact with the protesters. Mr Thaksin's input adds to the feeling that this conflict is on the brink of civil war.

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