via CAAI News Media
Jason Szep and Martin Petty
Reuters April 8, 2010,
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand blocked opposition websites and TV channels on Thursday and the prime minister scrapped an overseas visit a day after a state of emergency was declared to quell nearly a month of mass protests.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called off a one-day trip to Vietnam for a Southeast Asian leaders summit as tension remained high, with protesters scuffling with riot police outside a crucial satellite broadcast station and vowing defiance.
Despite the decree, the red-shirted supporters of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ignored orders to leave the capital's main shopping district and promised their biggest rally yet on Friday after briefly storming parliament this week.
Nearly 1,000 protesters tried to push through anti-riot forces guarding Thaicom Pcl's satellite earth station in northern Pathum Thani Province. The company, formerly owned by Thaksin, was used by the red shirts to broadcast programs before it was taken off air on Thursday.
The red shirts are demanding that it is back in operation by the end of the day.
The risk of a confrontation subdued Thailand's recently hot stock market, which fell more than three percent in its biggest fall in more than two months, and brought a warning from the central bank over possible fallout on the economy.
"We have to admit that the political factor has affected consumers and business," Bank of Thailand Chief Economist Suchart Sakkankosone told reporters, adding unrest could influence the timing of an interest-rate rise most economists expect in June.
Abhisit faces a difficult choice: compromise and call an election he could easily lose, or launch a crackdown on tens of thousands of protesters that could stir up even more trouble.
Most analysts doubt the authorities will use force to remove the mostly rural and working class protesters who have been camped in Bangkok's upmarket shopping district since Saturday -- a politically risky decision for Abhisit as his 16-month-old coalition government struggles to build support outside Bangkok.
But there were scattered reports of violence.
Overnight, two men on a motorbike fired into offices of the nationalist monarchist "yellow shirts," arch rivals of Thaksin and his allies, wounding two security guards. A grenade lobbed at a yellow shirt radio station failed to explode.
In 2008, the yellow shirts occupied the prime minister's office for three months and blockaded Bangkok's main airport until a court expelled the Thaksin-allied government.
The number of protesters in the district of malls and luxury hotels was growing steadily. Numbers typically swell into the tens of thousands in the cooler evenings in a carnival-like atmosphere.
Pressure is growing on Abhisit from residents in Bangkok, a stronghold of his Democrat Party, to take decisive action to end the rolling protests, which began on March 14 when up to 150,000 massed in the city's old quarter.
"Abhisit has been accused of finding it difficult to make decisions and he seems to be struggling here somewhat. But it is a difficult position. There's human cost involved," said Danny Richards, senior Asia editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The emergency decree allows authorities to suspend certain civil liberties, ban public gatherings of more than five people and stop media reporting news that "causes panic."
Abhisit assured the public on Wednesday that the emergency would not be used to impose a crackdown. Recently he has offered some concessions, including dissolving parliament in December, a year early, but protesters are demanding immediate elections.
By Thursday, authorities had blocked most websites associated with the protesters and taken several opposition TV channels off air. Military checkpoints had gone up outside Bangkok to stop more from entering the sprawling city of 15 million people.
"We will go on the offensive," a protest leader, Weng Tojirakarn, told Reuters. Another red shirt leader Nattawut Saikua said they "would not give up."
The protesters see the urbane, British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit as a front man for an unelected elite and military intervening in politics with impunity.
They say Abhisit lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote following a court ruling that dissolved a pro-Thaksin ruling party. If allies of the red shirts were to prevail in an election, it would probably spark a new round of protests by Thaksin's opponents.
(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Nick Macfie)