Red Shirts to step up protest in Bangkok

"Red Shirt" anti-government protesters rest at the Democracy Monument as their rally continues in central Bangkok on April 14. Thailand's anti-government "Red Shirts" said on April 14 they would reinforce a mass rally in the heart of Bangkok's commercial district, leaving another protest site in the historic district. (AFP)

Thailand's anti-government "Red Shirts" vowed Wednesday to expand a mass protest in the commercial heart of Bangkok as the death toll from the worst civil unrest in almost two decades rose to 22.

The Reds, seeking immediate elections, have promised to turn up the heat on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is under mounting pressure to resolve a crisis that has severely tarnished the country's image as a top tourism destination.

The demonstrators will move out of the capital's old city, the scene of Saturday's bloody street clashes, and converge in the shopping and hotel district, one of their leaders said.

"We believe the government will try to disperse us again in the next couple of days," said a Reds leader, Nattawut Saikuar. "We're organising our movement to fight. We hope it will be the final round between us and this government."

Thousands of Reds, many of whom are from Thailand's rural poor, have been occupying two sites in central Bangkok in their bid to topple the government, which they accuse of being elitist and undemocratic.

The Reds' rally in the commercial district has blocked traffic and caused shops to shutter their stores, but there has been no violence in the area, in stark contrast to the bloodshed in the historic quarter.

The authorities have said they will not try to put down peaceful protests.

Days after an army crackdown triggered fierce clashes near the Khaosan Road backpacker strip, calmer scenes returned to the capital this week as revellers sprayed water and daubed their faces with clay to celebrate Thai new year.

But Abhisit's future looks precarious after an election body called for the abolition of his Democrat Party over allegations of illegal political donations - a move that could trigger the government's collapse.

The Reds have hailed the election commission's move, but said it does not change their demands for the immediate dissolution of parliament.

The government, which imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas a week ago, has accused ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra of stoking the unrest, which has prompted growing international alarm.

Thailand's Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, speaking in Washington, even touched on the highly sensitive role of the royal family in the future political life of the country.

"It is a process that we have to go through and I think we should be brave enough to go through all of this and to talk about even the taboo subject of the institution of the monarchy," he said.

Thailand has been riven by years of political tensions pitting the ruling elite against the mainly working class Reds.

Speculation has grown over whether the government will call early elections in a bid to defuse the stand-off, but the Reds have insisted they will accept nothing less than immediate polls, saying the time for negotiations is over.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said Tuesday that year-end polls were still the best option.
"It is possible in seven or eight months, but nine months is an appropriate time because the government needs to give people time to heal," he said.

Abhisit offered during talks with Red Shirt representatives last month to hold elections by the end of 2010 -one year ahead of schedule - but protesters insist on immediate polls.

Army chief Anupong Paojinda has also said he is in favour of dissolving parliament to resolve the crisis and suggested he was reluctant to use force again to put down the protests after the weekend bloodshed.

Abhisit has blamed "terrorists" for Saturday's violence, while his deputy Suthep also said the Reds could continue their rallies in Bangkok for months as long as they are peaceful.

The bloodshed erupted when troops tried to clear the site in Bangkok's old quarter occupied by the protesters, who had earlier stormed parliament and tried to force their way into an army base in the capital.

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