Friday, April 09, 2010

Thai protesters storm into TV compound

Thai protesters vow to continue fight

By KINAN SUCHAOVANICH, Associated Press April 8, 2010

BANGKOK – Thai anti-government protesters stormed Friday into a telecom
company compound where authorities had shut down their vital TV channel,
as soldiers and riot police tried to hold them back with tear gas and
water cannons.

It was the first use of force by the government in month long protests
aimed at ousting Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and forcing new
elections. Meanwhile, the Criminal Court said it had issued arrest
warrants for three top protest leaders.

The "Red Shirt" protesters had threatened to charge into the building if a
senior military commander didn't come out to negotiate with them to
restore their People Channel, or PTV.

Hurling rocks, the protesters breached the barbed-wire perimeter of the
Thaicom Public Co. Ltd. within minutes, though they were not immediately
able to enter the main building. As they moved into the compound, security
forces threw tear gas canisters and fired water cannons but then quickly
retreated into the main building as thousands of protesters swarmed around

Some security forces were seen throwing down their shields and riot gear
and shaking hands with the protesters. The Red Shirts offered water to
soldiers and police.

The escalating demonstrations are part of a long-running battle between
the mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra, and the ruling elite they say orchestrated the 2006 military
coup that removed him from power. They see the Oxford-educated Abhisit as
a symbol of the elite and claim he took office illegitimately in December
2008 with the help of military pressure on Parliament.

In recent weeks, police at demonstrations have frequently shown sympathy
with the protesters and analysts say the security forces, especially the
police, are split in their loyalties, making it difficult for the
government to enforce its orders and decrees.

Leaders of the Red Shirt movement initially said they would march to
undisclosed locations across Bangkok on Friday in their biggest rally yet,
but switched plans, with protest leader Nattawut Saikua telling followers,
"We're all moving in one direction."

"We're going to bring back our People Channel," he said.

Columns of protesters, riding motorcycles and pickup trucks, had blared
horns and waved red flags as they moved out of their two main encampments
in downtown Bangkok and headed north 28 miles (45 kilometers) to the
offices of Thaicom in the suburb of Pathum Thani.

Thaicom was founded by Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon turned

The government security agency estimated that 15,000 people were in the
motorized caravan, but army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd placed the
number at about 3,000. Both figures are far below the biggest estimated
turnout of about 100,000 during the early days of the protests last month.

PTV was set up and financed by Red Shirt sympathizers. A number of small
community radio stations also are allied with the protesters, who also use
cell phones and social networking to communicate.

On Friday, the Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for three leaders for
allegedly seizing the commercial district, the official Thai News Agency
said. To date, a total of 27 warrants have been issued but none of the
leaders is known to have been taken into custody.

The government has declared a state of emergency but so far has exerted no
significant force to stop the escalating demonstrations. Instead, it has
censored the protesters' communication links. On Thursday, it blocked the
"People Channel" and dozens of Web sites that broadcast the protesters'
fiery rallies and calls to the countryside for reinforcements.

Abhisit imposed the emergency order Wednesday and canceled a one-day trip
to Hanoi for a summit of Southeast Asian leaders as he searched for ways
to resolve the showdown without the use of force.

The prime minister went on national television late Thursday to explain
the reasons behind the censorship and to announce that arrest warrants had
been issued for protest leaders accused of briefly storming Parliament on

"What the government wants is peace and happiness," Abhisit said. Although
the emergency order means the military now has greater power to restore
order, both Abhisit and the army know a crackdown could result in
bloodshed that would be political poison.

"It is the manipulation of information that is creating hate," he said.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said the media outlets blocked
put out false information, including warnings that Abhisit authorized the
use of force against protesters.

Most of Thailand's television stations are owned by the government, but
other media are privately owned and reflect a wide spectrum of political

Protesters have camped in Bangkok's historic district since March 12 and
occupied the capital's main shopping boulevard since Saturday. A group of
demonstrators stormed Parliament on Wednesday, forcing officials to flee
over a back wall and by helicopter, and prompting the emergency decree,
which also allows authorities to impose curfews, ban public gatherings,
censor media and detain suspects without charge for 30 days.


Associated Press writers Denis D. Gray, Jocelyn Gecker and Grant Peck
contributed to this report.

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