Thai protesters agree to leave summit site

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A leader of anti-government protesters in Thailand says demonstrators will leave the venue of a weekend summit of Asian leaders, easing concerns that the meeting might have to be canceled.

Some 2,000 protesters had gathered outside the hotel complex to call for the resignation of the country's prime minister.

Protest leader Arisman Pongreungrong says they have agreed to leave the site for now and unblock roads leading to the venue but will regroup in Pattaya, a few miles (kilometers) away.

He says the protesters will discuss whether to return Saturday if their conditions are not met.

Shortly after he spoke, the demonstrators began retreating.

Hoping it would be easier to control the demonstrations with fewer people in Bangkok, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announced a national holiday late on Thursday after taxi drivers began blocking major intersections in the sprawling capital.

Thailand already had a holiday scheduled from 13-15 April, when many rural anti-government protesters who have flooded into Bangkok were expected to go home. Media said Abhisit hoped the extra day would help take the heat out of the protests.

One aim was to unclog the capital, where traffic was worse than what passes for normal on Thursday after taxi drivers joined red-shirted supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in their push for Abhisit's resignation.

The pro-Thaksin Union Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) had said the protests would end, temporarily at least, by the weekend, but it hardened its tone earlier today.

"This fight will end only when the 'red shirts' win or the government wins," one UDD leader, Jatuporn Prompan, told a news conference in Bangkok.

Abhisit said in a televised address on Thursday he wanted to ease the inconvenience to the public caused by the protests, and make it easier to identify troublemakers.

He said he would not give in to demands to step down made by Thaksin, ousted in a military coup in 2006.

Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire, lives in self-imposed exile, but his absence has not healed the divisions between the royalist, military and business elite, who say he was corrupt, and the poor who benefited from his populist policies.

For the government, one immediate priority was security at a summit of 16 Asian leaders gathering on Friday in Pattaya, a resort town 150 km (90 miles) southeast of Bangkok.

Any violence played out in front of the television cameras at the summit could scare off foreign investors, who have only recently dipped back into the Thai stock market.

Despite the holiday, financial markets opened as usual on Friday. The stock market followed Wall Street higher at first, then turned lower, with investors worried about how the protests might develop over the break.

"If things become disrupted, that will seriously affect investment sentiment," said Sukit Udomsirikul, a senior analyst with Siam City Securities.

The summit was cancelled last year because of political unrest when a pro-Thaksin government was in power. Abhisit's administration has billed the rescheduled event as a sign that Thailand was returning to normal.

Several thousand demonstrators turned up in Pattaya and easily pushed through several checkpoints before halting just outside the hotel where the summit is being held.

For the most part, the protests remained peaceful. One group of "red shirts" who had blocked Silom Road in Bangkok turned and ran when some women came out of an office block and shouted abuse at them. They left behind a red flag that the women burned.

The mass protest began on Wednesday, with 100,000 people in a sea of red around Abhisit's office at Government House.

On Friday the early numbers were put by police at no more than 5,000. Some protesters had moved to other focus points, including Victory Monument, a landmark that is also one of the busiest road junctions in the capital.

Around 1,000 protesters were at the intersection on Friday, erecting tents to provide shelter. UDD leaders said they might move back to Government House later in the day, but only if there was no attack on their people in Pattaya.

Suraphon Pangkaew, a 55-year-old from Chonburi in the east, said he didn't care what Abhisit had said because he was not the legitimate leader - a constant refrain from Thaksin supporters.

Abhisit became premier in December, after a pro-Thaksin government was dismissed by the courts, and was elected by parliament with the help of defectors from the Thaksin camp.

"They said they want to enforce the law upon us. They didn't do that with PAD, so this is unfair," Suraphon said.

PAD - the People's Alliance for Democracy - waged a street campaign for months to undermine successive pro-Thaksin governments last year. It closed down Bangkok's two main airports for a week in late 2008, devastating the tourism industry.