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Thailand In Crisis

April 14, 2009

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Both sides in the escalating political crisis in Thailand are saying they are fighting for democracy.

So outside observers are left wondering how come the Red Shirts, the supporters of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawarta, and the Yellow Shirts of 4-month-long Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva are on opposite ends of Bangkok’s chaotic main intersections.

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Thaksin has been exiled in London since his ouster in a coup in 2006 but has been egging on his supporters to reinstall him in a ‘people power’ counter revolt through almost nightly video messages.

As the street battles wage, foreigners are now being advised buy their governments to stay indoors if they are in Bangkok or to forego travel plans to Thailand.

Here’s the latest portrait of the situation drawn by the British Broadcasting Corporation:

Across the city centre, the Thai New Year began with a series of red-shirted blockades – tyres were set alight and plumes of black smoke drifted in front of government ministries. There was a tense stand-off as troops with riot shields held their line, and tempers boiled over in the heat of the morning. There were perhaps only a hundred anti-government protesters but they threw petrol bombs, rocks and bottles at the army lines. Beating a rhythm on their shields they moved forward to meet the red-shirted crowd – setting off harmless explosives to push the crowd back. Then the confrontation stopped – both sides pulled back and, in a bizarre moment of calm, a man came forward and handed pink roses to each of the troops. The prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva – whom the red-shirts are demanding resign – appeared on national television to reassure people the army would only use force in self defence, but to insist that, under the state of emergency, the protesters would be removed. Raining petrol bombs At the flashpoint, with their numbers swelled by the arrival of more demonstrators, the confrontation began again – but this time, the rules suddenly changed. A bus blocking the road was set on fire and a water-cannon was used by soldiers to put out the blaze. As the troops swarmed forward, another bus was reversed towards them and this was the final provocation – the soldiers opened fire. Automatic gunfire was aimed at the crowd as they fled – tourists from a nearby hotel watched as bullets were sprayed down the road. One soldier, apparently a senior officer, stood upright and fired his pistol, as another crouched and aimed at waist level and used an entire magazine of live ammunition – and he was clearly not firing above their heads. As the troops went in pursuit, another bus was driven at army lines behind their position on another front – it smashed into the barrier on a flyover, almost careering on to the carriageway below. The military again pushed forward, again firing live rounds, but this time into the air. An overhead power cable split by a bullet fizzed and sparked to the ground as petrol bombs and bottles rained down on the troops. Aggressively they chased the red-shirts down the road, firing as they went, to Victory Monument – a main roundabout in the city. Tempers then calmed as both sides stopped to re-group and drink the supplies of water scattered about for the demonstrations. Gradually they began to taunt each other across the square before the confrontation petered out. An elderly man was treated for a nasty head injury – a number of people are believed to have been hurt, some seriously. Political crisis The clashes did not take place across the entire city – tourists were still walking around, amazed at what was going on in front of them. This was the morning’s flashpoint, but it was far from Government House, where the red-shirt leaders have set up a stage and occupied the area for two weeks. They urged more people to join the push to have the government stand down and announce new elections. If they are to clear the protesters completely, the military will have to take on thousands of people – among them women and children. Last year it was the yellow shirt movement which closed down the airports, took over Government House and forced political change. They wanted to end the influence over Thai politics of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The army did not react in this way when they were on the streets, but it seems clear the prime minister, or his military commanders, have decided to bring this to an end. The reds who have Thaksin as their icon, and whom he has been stirring up in nightly video or telephone speeches, are fighting back – and leaving Thailand once again in a deep political crisis.

The Thai New Year passed with no word from the country’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadeh who has in the past been the voice of calm and moderation.

It is uncertain how far the world’s longest-serving monarch will allow the chaos to play out now that at least two have been killed and up to 70 others are reported to have been hurt.

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In most part, the Thai police and military have been firing above the heads of demonstrators who use commandeered buses and fire bombs as their weapons of choice.

Premier Abhisit knows the rest of the world is watching and his government can ill afford any further widening of the state of emergency already in force in the Thai capital.

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