via CAAI News Media
Thursday, April 8, 2010
By DENIS D. GRAY Associated Press Writer
BANGKOK (AP) - Thailand's beleaguered government shut down a satellite television station and Web sites of anti-government demonstrators Thursday after declaring a state of emergency, then issued arrest warrants for protest leaders accused of storming Parliament.
The defiant "Red Shirts," attempting to drive Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva from office and force new elections, planned another mass rally Friday despite the emergency order that empowers the military to move against large gatherings.
Abhisit canceled a trip to Hanoi on Thursday to attend a summit of Southeast Asian leaders as he groped for ways to resolve the monthlong crisis without use of armed force.
"What the government wants is peace and happiness," Abhisit said in televised remarks late Thursday, explaining that the government had clamped down on opposition media that were "manipulating information that is creating hate."
He said that arrest warrants had been issued for seven protest leaders accused of briefly forcing their way into the Parliament compound on Wednesday. Lawmakers were forced to flee on ladders over a back wall and senior officials were hastily evacuated by helicopter.
The confrontation is part of a long-running battle between the mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup, and those who oppose him. Thaksin was accused of corruption and showing disrespect to the country's revered monarch.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said the government has shut down PTV, the satellite TV station of the Red Shirts, and was searching for Web sites that have put out false information such as that Abhisit had authorized the use of force against demonstrators.
"The government has succeeded in stopping certain media outlets from disseminating distorted and false information," he said.
At least 36 Web sites connected to the opposition were banned, including content from a Twitter page and YouTube. By Thursday evening most of the sites could not be accessed.
Appearing on television, Panitan broke into English to apologize to foreign tourists and expatriates for any inconvenience from the recent events.
For the past week, several of the city's plushest shopping malls have been shut and upscale hotels in the same district left under virtual siege.
A protest leader, Nattawut Saikua, told followers that a media blackout "is just the first step for the government to clamp down on us tomorrow morning. If this is so, we're going to raise our protest to the maximum level."
He called on protesters to march Friday to 10 locations "all over Bangkok" that would be made public at the last minute.
Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the number of protesters at their two main encampments had dropped to some 5,500 and urged those remaining to return to their homes outside Bangkok to celebrate the April 12-15 Thai New Year. He said security forces had thrown up checkpoints around the city to stop others from entering.
At their peak, more than 100,000 Red Shirts have massed around the city.
The demonstrators, called the Red Shirts for their attire, benefited from populist policies such as cheap health care and village loans under Thaksin.
They set up their makeshift camps in Bangkok's historic district March 12 and then spread to the main commercial district and beyond. They are demanding that Abhisit dissolve Parliament within 15 days and call new elections, claiming he took office illegitimately in December 2008 with the help of military pressure on Parliament.
Instead, the prime minister has offered to do so by the end of the year.
The protesters have shown surprising tenacity as well as organizational skills, living under primitive conditions in scorching heat and moving around the city in well-ordered motorized columns.
Abhisit has been harshly criticized for failing to take strong measures to end the disruptive demonstrations. He has entered negotiations with the Red Shirts and ordered security forces to pull back from possible confrontations.
The emergency decree adopted Wednesday allows security officials to detain suspects without charge for up to 30 days and gives them the option of imposing curfews, banning public gatherings and censoring media.
Although 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.
The media clampdown may also prove difficult, with Panitan acknowledging the protesters are trying to find ways to get around the blocks. PTV, set up and financed by Red Shirt sympathizers, is particularly important to the protesters as a means of communicating their aims and plans.
A number of small community radio stations are also allied with the protesters, who also use cell phones and social networking to communicate.
Most of Thailand's television stations are owned by the government but the country's many newspapers are privately owned and reflect a wide spectrum of political opinion.
Surat Horachaikul, a political science lecturer at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said the emergency announcement can be interpreted in two ways.
"First, it might be an attempt by the government to buy some time. Or it might actually mean that the government and the army have reached an agreement in solving the current problem," he said.
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Thanyarat Doksone, Kinan Suchaovanich and Grant Peck contributed to this report from Bangkok. Foster Klug contributed from Washington.