Thailand declares emergency as protesters storm summit
Saturday 11 April 2009
Anti-government protesters stormed a building where leaders of Asian nations were to meet today, prompting Thailand's government to cancel the summit and declare a state of emergency in the seaside city that was to host it.
The leaders were being evacuated by helicopter from Pattaya to a nearby military airport, a security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The red-shirted protesters, who are calling for the resignation of Thai Prime Abhisit Vejjajiva, declared victory and walked away from the convention center.
"We have won. We have stopped them from holding a summit," Jakrapob Penkair, one of the protest leaders, said in the capital, Bangkok. "But we have not achieved our goal yet. We will continue to protest in Bangkok until Abhisit resigns."
More than 1,000 protesters smashed through the convention center's glass doors and ran through the building, overturning tables, blowing horns, waving Thai flags and screaming, "Abhisit get out!"
All the leaders were safe, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat. Nine leaders from Southeast Asian nations were in a nearby hotel on the convention grounds at the time the protesters broke in.
"The meeting cannot go on. We have to consider the security of the leaders," government spokesman Supachai Jaisamuth said. "The situation is too violent and it is a security concern for the leaders."
The chaos dealt a major blow to Abhisit, who has been trying to project an image of calm and normality since taking power in a parliamentary vote four months ago after a court dissolved the previous government for election fraud.
It also scuttles a chance for the 16 regional leaders, including those from China, Japan and South Korea, to confer on ways to combat the global slump that has battered Asia's export-oriented economies. North Korea's recent rocket launch also was to be discussed at the gathering, which on Sunday was to include Australia, New Zealand and India for the full-fledged East Asia Summit.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said he hoped the summit could be rescheduled within the next few months, and warned protesters that "very tough standards will be applied to them very soon."
The summit started Friday with a dinner among leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but fell apart Saturday morning as protesters blocked access to some of the delegates' hotels.
Organizers had to delay — and then cancel — morning meetings between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and ASEAN leaders, as well as meetings with the president of South Korea, and later with Japan's prime minister.
A breakfast meeting of the foreign ministers from Japan, China and South Korea also was canceled.
The airplane carrying Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was to join the summit Sunday, was diverted on news of the cancellation. After making a refueling stop, he was to fly back to Australia, officials said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, scheduled to meet with ASEAN leaders Sunday, issued a statement saying he "deeply regretted" that the summit was called off, and would not be attending.
The protesters are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power. They say Abhisit was not elected by the people and should step down so new elections can be held.
"We want to tell Abhisit himself that this meeting cannot go on," protest leader Arisman Pongreungrong said after leading the mob into the hilltop convention hall in Pattaya, a resort city about 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Bangkok.
The protesters met little resistance from a thin line of soldiers in riot gear who were standing in front of the summit venue. When the protesters pushed toward the building and started pounding on the glass facade, the soldiers attempted to push them back but were overwhelmed by their numbers.
Abhisit, who has repeatedly refused to step down, went on national television and declared a state of emergency in the area surrounding the summit.
The decree gives the military the right to restore order, allows authorities to suspend civil liberties, bans public gatherings of more than five people and bars the media from reporting news that "causes panic."
Earlier in the day, there were clashes between anti-government protesters and pro-government groups, some wearing masks. Panitan, the government spokesman, said authorities were investigating reports of shots fired and an explosion.
Chatree Charoenchivakul at the Narenthorn Emergency Center said 10 people had minor injuries, including four red-shirted protesters. One demonstrator had serious injuries with shrapnel in his abdomen, he said.
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