Thailand’s capital, unnerved by nearly four weeks of turmoil, braced for renewed anti-government demonstrations Monday as protesters announced they would shift to a new location after paralysing Bangkok’s commercial heart over the weekend.
The weekend protests forced the closure of at least six upscale shopping malls and tough security measures at nearby five-star hotels, with economic losses estimated at up to 500 million baht ($15 million) a day.
Prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has repeatedly refused demands of the so-called Red Shirts that he immediately dissolve Parliament and call new elections, despite protracted protests in the capital and unsuccessful negotiations last week.
The protesters, mostly farmers from impoverished provincial areas, have vowed not to let up their pressure until Abhisit’s government steps down.
The decision by the Red Shirts to move out of the commercial district appeared to head off a confrontation with government forces, who said they were prepared to use tough measures to clear the protesters from the area, which they began occupying Saturday.
Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader, said Sunday evening that the demonstrators would move to an undisclosed location in the morning — just before the government said it would obtain a court order to clear the commercial district.
Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kawekamnerd warned the Red Shirts not to enter other nearby business or residential areas and said the government has barred them from 11 major roads in the capital.
Many of the protesters slept again Sunday night on trash-strewn pavements in the shadow of the luxury hotels and shopping centers.
“I’m impressed by the leaders. They’ve shown the tough stuff that we so need,” said Thongyoi Jitmun, a protester from northeastern Thailand. “For the government’s part, their effort has been futile. What else can they do to us? We’re told what we’re doing is legal. I’m not going to give up so easily. We only live once.”
But many showed signs of fatigue. To escape the scorching sun, weary protesters huddled in the shade of an entranceway to a closed shopping mall.
The Red Shirt movement — known formally as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship — consists largely of supporters of ex-Prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed a 2006 military coup that ousted him on corruption allegations.
Protest leaders have portrayed the demonstrations as a struggle between Thailand’s impoverished, mainly rural masses — who benefited from Thaksin policies of cheap health care and low-interest village loans — and a Bangkok-based elite impervious to their plight.
Thaksin’s allies won elections in December 2007 to restore democracy, but two resulting governments were forced out by court rulings. A parliamentary vote brought Abhisit’s party to power in December 2008. The Red Shirts say his rule is undemocratic and that only new elections can restore integrity to Thai democracy.
Abhisit must call new elections by the end of 2011, and many believe Thaksin’s allies are likely to win — which could spark new protests by Thaksin’s opponents.
Residents of the sprawling Thai capital are divided in their view of the Red Shirts, with some merely fed up with the loss of business and traffic jams.
The protesters, whose numbers have peaked at about 100,000, have received support from lower-middle-class residents, many of them migrants from rural areas, but are detested by many in professional, business and senior government ranks.
While some in the middle and upper classes have expressed sympathy for the Red Shirts’ demands for a better economic deal and an end to inequalities in Thai society, they don’t support the movement outright because Thaksin is its shadow leader.
Thaksin, a multimillionaire convicted of corruption and abuse of power, is a fugitive abroad but encourages the Red Shirts with frequent messages. His six years in office were riddled by accusations of nepotism and an erosion of democratic institutions.