Thailand close to political anarchy as protesters parade their dead through Bangkok

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Red-shirted protesters paraded coffins through Thailand's capital today in a renewed attempt to pressure the government to step down after street fighting left 21 people dead, pushing this Southeast Asian nation closer to political anarchy.

Neither side appeared willing to end the stalemate, which descended into the worst political violence Thailand has seen in two decades this weekend. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva today blamed the bloodshed on a small group of troublemakers, whom he called terrorists, rather than the entire protest movement, but he continued to refuse to dissolve his government.

The red-shirted protesters and security forces clashed Saturday on the streets of Bangkok for several hours, until soldiers and police backed down, initiating an informal truce that has held since. But no broader solution is in sight.

"Red Shirts will never negotiate with murderers," protest leader Jatuporn Prompan announced from a makeshift stage Sunday. "Although the road is rough and full of obstacles, it's our duty to honor the dead by bringing democracy to this country."

The anti-government protesters are made up of mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose populist policies eased the plight of many. They have massed in the city over the past month, basing themselves in the historic old city and on the capital's main shopping boulevard. On the other side is the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whom the Red Shirts see as a symbol of the ruling elite they say orchestrated the 2006 military coup that removed Thaksin from power amid corruption allegations.

The Thai stock market plunged 3.6 per cent today amid fears of more unrest as tens of thousands of demonstrators came out in a massive motorcade.

Apichart Sankary, an executive with the Federation of Thai Tourism Associations, said that if street protests continue the number of foreign visitors could drop to 14.5 million this year, against an earlier projection of 15.5 million.

Like a gigantic red snake, the line of pickup trucks, motorcycles and other vehicles wound its way through the main roads of Bangkok. They carried several coffins with bodies of those killed in Saturday's violence, said Weng Tojirakarn, a protest leader.

Four soldiers and 17 civilians died, including a Thomson Reuters cameraman, according to the news agency and the government's Erawan emergency center. The government was conducting autopsies on nine bodies Monday.

Both sides accuse each other of firing battlefield weapons during the confrontation. In a speech broadcast live Monday, Abhisit praised the protests as "largely peaceful" and said an independent inquiry will be held into the shootings. Those found guilty would be prosecuted, he promised.

"These are the heroes of democracy," a protest leader shouted Monday from a loudspeaker mounted atop a truck in the motorcade.

"We want to see shame on Abhisit's face. We want him to take responsibility for this slaughter of innocents," said a woman who identified herself only as Thip.

The procession started at Phan Fa Bridge, near the protester base in the historic section of Bangkok. It then drove through the modern commercial heart of the city.

The disruptive protests began a month ago, when the demonstrators began pressing their demand that Abhisit dissolve Parliament and call new elections with renewed fervor.

The protesters see the Oxford-educated Abhisit as a symbol — and stooge — of the old guard that has traditionally ruled Thailand. They see the hand of this elite in 2008 protests by the Yellow Shirts, whose demonstrations helped topple the two elected governments — made up of Thaksin allies — that took power following the coup. In the subsequent vacuum, Parliament voted in Abhisit, and the Red Shirts say it was with the connivance of the military.

The Yellow Shirts took to the streets — laying siege to the seat of government for months and shutting down the capital's airports for a week — claiming corruption in the governments of Thaksin and his allies undermined Thai democracy. The Red Shirts also say they are fighting for democracy, arguing that the wealthy keep vacating their wins at the polls with coups or trumped-up charges. Only new elections can restore integrity to the process, they say.

Unconfirmed reports in local newspapers said political parties in the coalition government were pressuring Abhisit to compromise with the protesters by dissolving Parliament in the next six months instead of by year's end, as he had earlier proposed. He must call elections by the end of 2011.

"The government should be more flexible in their attempt to resolve the situation. It's their duty to seek for a solution that's possible and acceptable for both sides," said Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

He predicted more violence in the next two weeks since "the standpoint of both sides is clear — that negotiation and compromise will not happen."

Other observers saw political maneuvering rather than street fighting on the horizon.

"Abhisit standing down would be a plus. He is discredited now, so he must decide how he can do something that is seen as in the national interest. An election is urgent," said Kevin Hewison, who heads the Asian Studies Department at the University of North Carolina.

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