Thailand’s prime minister said Sunday the government was preparing to clear an area of Bangkok defended by thousands of anti-government protesters, seeking to end a crisis which has virtually paralyzed the capital.
Many Thais have grown increasingly frustrated with the stalemate, which has dragged on for nearly eight weeks, claiming the lives of at least 27 people and costing the country tens of millions of dollars. It has sparked concerns of a flare-up of civil unrest.
“We are sending a clear signal that we have given people enough time to leave (the occupied zone). We are now in the process of sealing off and cutting off support before we actually move in,” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in an interview with several foreign journalists to be nationally televised.
Thousands of so-called Red Shirt protesters have occupied a barricaded encampment in the commercial heart of Bangkok, centered on its most upmarket shopping district, forcing the closure of several malls and hotels.
Abhisit declined to elaborate on an earlier announced plan to end the crisis which he said did not include the declaration of martial law. In an emergency meeting Sunday, the Cabinet approved special funding for the police to contain the demonstrators.
“My belief is that the majority of the people want the protest to end. Increasingly their patience is running out. This is a situation we have to handle,” he said in the interview.
The protesters, mostly from the rural and urban poor, view the government as an illegitimate puppet of Bangkok’s elite and the military, are demanding Abhisit resign, dissolve Parliament and call new elections.
Abhisit has rejected the call for quick elections and publicly suspended talks with the protesters but says he still hopes a political solution will persuade the Red Shirts to leave.
Speaking at a closely guarded military camp on the city’s outskirts, Abhisit gave no indication when any operation against the entrenched protesters would be launched. But he said the demonstrators, who include a large number of women and children, would be given prior warning.
“I can say that we continue to exercise restraint and patience and the first, best solution is one that does not involve violence,” he said.
In a small concession, the demonstrators on Sunday shifted their tire barricades away from a hospital on the edge of their encampment in a move intended to allow the medical facility to reopen.
Abhisit said earlier Sunday he was reluctant to give in to demands from a group of pro-establishment protesters who have called for a declaration of martial law.
“So far, from what we have discussed, we (the government and the army) think that the situation doesn’t warrant martial law,” he said in his weekly television broadcast.
The Red Shirts said they would ignore any declaration of martial law anyway.
“Even if they announce that, we are not going to go home, we are going to stay put,” said Nattawut Saikua, a Red Shirt leader.
The Red Shirts drew intense criticism last week after raiding Chulalongkorn Hospital on the edge of their protest site, prompting medical officials to evacuate it of patients.
On Sunday, the demonstrators dismantled the barricade blocking access to the hospital and rebuilt it about 50 yards (meters) away, on the other side of the entrance to the facility. Police then used a crane to assemble a short barrier of concrete blocks in front of the new barricade, effectively fortifying the protest camp.
Maj. Gen. Vichai Sangparpai, a top police official, said the blocks were intended to keep the protesters away from the hospital, which was guarded Sunday by large groups of police officers.
Nattawut said the Red Shirt raid on the hospital was a mistake and offered an apology.
Since the Red Shirts moved into Bangkok in mid-March, there have been several clashes between protesters and security forces. With negotiations between the protesters and the government on hold and hopes for a peaceful end to the standoff dwindling, calls have grown for international mediation.
The International Crisis Group think tank said Saturday that Thailand’s political system had broken down and expressed fears the standoff could “deteriorate into an undeclared civil war.”
But Abhisit, in the interview, said that only in three or four of the country’s provinces was there “a (protest) movement in parallel with Bangkok that has to be handled. The rest of the country is well under control.”