Thai "red shirts" gather after botched arrests

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fri Apr 16, 2010
Nopporn Wong-Anan and Sukree Sukplang

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of Thai anti-government protesters gathered at a central Bangkok site on Friday after police botched an attempt to arrest three of their leaders as the authorities vowed to crack down on "terrorists."

One protest leader slid down a rope from a hotel balcony to escape riot police, while others were rescued by hundreds of "red shirts," who heavily outnumbered security forces at a Bangkok hotel owned by the family of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The three leaders later joined around 10,000 of their supporters at a shopping center in the middle of the city, now the main site of month-long protests in the Thai capital.

"If they use force to disperse us, we will flatten the entire neighborhood," said Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader who was not among the three escapees, on a red shirt stage at the intersection of posh shopping malls and luxury hotels.

The government, which had previously said it would not directly confront the protesters, also stepped up the rhetoric,

although there were no troops on the streets of Bangkok.

"We will arrest and suppress the terrorists. We have set up special task forces hunting for the terrorists," Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said.

The move against leaders of the red shirts on Friday follows a failed attempt by troops to eject protesters from one of their encampments in the city last weekend. At least 24 people were killed and more than 800 injured in Thailand's worst political violence since 1992.


The risk of further instability in Thailand sent stocks down 2.1 percent and the market has now lost almost all its gains this year.

Thailand's five-year credit default swaps (CDS), often used as a measure of political risk, were trading at 110/115.57 against 105/111 bps on Monday, the last trading day prior to a three-day holiday.

The "red shirts" back Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, and want Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down immediately and call early elections, which he has refused to do.

Abhisit had been due to hold his first news conference in four days at 1 p.m. local time (2:00 a.m. EST) but it was delayed, although no reason was given.

Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij told Reuters on Thursday Abhisit would not resign as it would "be very negative for the country.

Protesters called off plans to march on television stations that they accused of biased coverage, removing one potential flashpoint with security forces. They hunkered down at their base in a central Bangkok shopping district, which they vowed to make a "final battleground" with the security forces.

The government has also said it would crack down on people it believed to be financing the red shirts and issued summonses under emergency powers for 60 people to report to a military barracks, where Abhisit has set up emergency headquarters.

The violent protests have hit Thai tourism, with occupancy rates less than a third of normal levels in Bangkok, according to a tour operator body.

According to a report from investment bank Morgan Stanley, losses to tourism, which accounts for 6 percent of gross domestic product, could clip 0.2 percentage point from economic growth this year.

The government believes Thailand's economy could grow 4.5 percent this year, although Korn warned that forecast could prove optimistic.

(Additional reporting by Viparat Jantraprap; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Alan Raybould and Bill Tarrant)


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