Thailand in turmoil as protesters rise against PM

Thailand's capital was plunged into chaos yesterday, as the authorities declared a state of emergency and troops were dispatched onto the streets when gangs of protesters attacked the Prime Minister's car.

Soldiers fired shots into the air as red-shirted anti-government activists stormed the Interior Ministry, while others roamed the streets of Bangkok. Two armoured personnel carriers were reported to be overrun by the demonstrators who removed their tracks, rendering them useless.

Outside the Interior Ministry, a furious mob attacked the car of the Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, with poles, stones and even flowerpots as it slowly made its escape. Nearby police in riot gear did nothing.

The former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, whose supporters are behind the current protests, urged the protesters to hold their nerve as the government hardened its stance. "Now that they have tanks on the streets," he said, in his nightly phone call to the demonstrators, "it is time for the people to come out in revolution. And when it is necessary, I will come back to the country."

By yesterday evening, police said, around 30,000 protesters had gathered in the centre of Bangkok, occupying at least 10 road intersections.

Jubilant demonstrators declared victory, while opposition leader Jakrapob Penkair, a former minister, called the state of emergency a declaration of war by the government. "We will be aggressively defending ourselves if necessary," he said.

Earlier, a furious and humiliated Mr Abhisit told reporters: "On the country's loss today, whoever declares this as victory, I will treat them as national enemies. I will do whatever I can to make sure these people cannot stay above the law."

The chaos came a day after the government was humiliatingly forced to cancel a 16-nation summit of Asian leaders at the Thai resort of Pattaya and evacuate by helicopter the leaders gathered there. A protest leader who had spearheaded those demonstrations, Arisman Pongruengrong, was taken into custody yesterday – something that no doubt triggered further anger among the protesters.

The turmoil is the result of conflict between supporters of the former prime minister, Mr Thaksin, and the current government led by the Eton-educated Prime Minister, Mr Abhisit.

The pro-Thaksin demonstrators – members of the so-called United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – claim that Mr Abhisit came to power unfairly last December and should stand down so that new elections can be held. He is refusing to do so and had hoped to use the occasion of the Asian summit to show the world he was still firmly in control.

Yesterday Mr Abhisit said in a televised address: "The government decided to impose the state of emergency because we want to return the country to normalcy. The government will try every way to prevent further damage. I ask the people to support the government in order to restore order in the country."

Mr Thaksin was ousted by a bloodless military coup in 2006, a move that was backed by business leaders, royalists and retired army officers who had demonstrated against the former telecommunications tycoon.

After democracy was restored, another pro-Thaksin government was elected, headed by former television chef, Samak Sundaravej.

But in September last year, Mr Samak was forced to stand down after it was found he had acted unconstitutionally by appearing on a cooking show while serving as prime minister. He was replaced by another ally of Mr Thaksin, Somchai Wongsawat, but after weeks of protests that saw the country's airports grind to a halt when they were overrrun by thousands of demonstrators, he too stood down, opening the way for Mr Abhisit.

Since then Mr Thaksin, living in exile after a Thai court sentenced him in absentia to two years in jail for breaking conflict-of-interest rules, has sought to dislodge Mr Abhisit, rallying his supporters in video addresses and urging change. In turn, Mr Abhisit has told his critics that he intends to stay.

Yesterday, however, there were signs the anti-government demonstrations might be spreading. Protests were reported to be breaking out in areas of northern and north-eastern Thailand, with one group threatening to blockade the main bridge linking the country to Laos, across the Mekong River. An Army spokesman, Col Sansern Kaewkamnerd, said that soldiers and police would safeguard key points in the capital and that the military presence was not a sign of anything more ominous.

In a country that has experienced 18 military coups since the 1930s, however, there will be fears that the current political chaos might again tempt the army to take power. "The situation has gotten completely out of hand. Violence and bloodshed is very much possible if Mr Abhisit does not resign or dissolve parliament," said Charnvit Kasetsiri, an historian and analyst.

"If the government cannot control the situation, military intervention is not out of the question."

The chairman of the country's Tourism Council, Kongkrit Hiranyakit, has predicted Thailand will lose at least 200bn baht (£3.8bn) as foreign tourists shun the country. "Some tourists want out quickly for fear that protesters may go on to block the airport like last year. Incoming tourists are questioning security and cancelling bookings," he said.

At Saturday's ASEAN summit, at which Asian leaders and the UN secretary-general were to have discussed the financial crisis, more than 1,000 demonstrators broke through a wall of unarmed soldiers, smashed through the convention centre's glass doors, and ran through the building, blowing horns and waving Thai flags.

Explainer: Thailand's ongoing political crisis

Why does Thailand keep plunging into turmoil?

Since Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a 2006 coup, his supporters have been fighting for his return to power. His allies led two administrations after the country returned to democracy but they were forced out.

How did the current Prime Minister come to office?

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat Party leader, was elected in December after a court banned three coalition parties and the then prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, from taking part in politics for several years.

How strong was his support?

Mr Abhisit took office with just a slim majority. Supporters of the former government blocked access to the parliament building after the vote.

Who is against him?

Mr Thaksin has widespread support among rural Thais because of his social welfare policies. His supporters accuse the elite, the military, judiciary and other unelected officials of undermining democracy by interfering in politics.

Is there any truth in that?

The demonstrators that took to the streets last year, and when the army took control in 2006, called themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy but their goal was not to secure more democracy, but less. The group believed the rural poor – who tend to support Mr Thaksin – were too uneducated to be involved in politics and that some MPs should be appointed. They were backed by business interests and ex-army officers.

What now?

The cancelling of the summit and the chaos yesterday raise questions about the government's ability to enforce law and order. Despite the presence of hundreds of soldiers on Saturday, protesters met little resistance. Yesterday, police in Bangkok appeared unable or unwilling to deal with them.

And what of the army?

Commanders insist, as they did last year, that they have no intention of seeing another coup.

Foreign Office advice: Stay away

The foreign Office has warned Britons planning to travel to Bangkok to "urgently review their plans" after the Thai government declared a state of emergency in the capital.

Advice on the FCO website reads: "British residents in, and visitors to, Bangkok are advised to avoid any areas where demonstrations are taking place and to stay indoors as far as possible."

But Britons already in Bangkok said the violent protesters were in the minority, and most Thais were busy celebrating their New Year. "I'm in Bangkok right now on holiday and there is absolutely no sign of trouble anywhere," one man from London told the BBC in an email.

"The protesters are relatively small in number.

"On the streets of Bangkok it feels like it is just another day. Reading reports like this make it seem like Bangkok is currently under military rule, and that is quite inaccurate.

"It's the same crazy Asian city it always is," he wrote.

Sadie Gray

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