Thailand on Tuesday toughened its stance against anti-government protesters, warning security forces would use live ammunition and tear gas in any fresh clashes.
Ten days after 25 people were killed and 800 wounded in a failed attempt to dislodge the red-shirted demonstrators, the government said it was determined to end four weeks of rallies but would not give a date for the crackdown. Related article: Silom under guard as rallies loom.
Confronted by the newly muscular approach and an intimidating military presence in Bangkok’s financial hub, the protesters were forced to cancel plans for a march to the strategic district.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva did not rule out the prospect of martial law being declared to rout the Red Shirts, who have established a massive encampment in the capital’s retail heartland.
“The military will make any decision over whether to declare martial law or not,” Abhisit told reporters, adding that the authorities would launch a crackdown in their own time. Related article: ‘Party over’ in Patpong “Security officials are not complacent, we will take quick action and do it to the best of our ability. The government does not want to see protracted protests but it’s not easy as they are armed.”
The army adopted a gloves-off rhetoric towards the demonstrators, who have paralysed parts of the capital and forced major shopping centres to close, wreaking havoc on business and the tourism industry in particular.
“Security forces will begin by firing tear gas and if they cannot stop protesters, then soldiers will start taking decisive action with live bullets,” army spokesman Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said.
Sunsern targeted shadowy black-clad provocateurs accused of kicking off the April 10 violence, who have been disowned by both sides of Thailand’s political divide and dubbed “terrorists”.
“We have received intelligence from the field that terrorists are armed with hand grenades, molotov cocktails and acid,” he said after a meeting chaired by army chief Anupong Paojinda. Key dates in Thailand since 2006 Abhisit said that fresh elections would not resolve the crisis in Thailand, as the Reds campaign to oust an administration they say is illegitimate, undemocratic and a puppet of the nation’s elites.
The protesters are mainly supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and is living in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.
Abhisit condemned calls by the chairman of Thailand’s leading opposition party, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who is a Thaksin ally, for an audience with the nation’s revered king to help resolve the crisis.
The ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 82, who has no official political role but is seen as a unifying figure, has made no public comment on the April 10 violence, Thailand’s worst civil unrest for nearly two decades.
“It’s not suitable to drag the institution (of the monarchy) into politics,” the premier said, accusing Chavalit and his allies of being the “genuine leaders” of the Red Shirt movement.
The Reds had threatened to march from their base to the nearby Silom financial district but were thwarted when thousands of armed troops and riot police descended Monday.
The deployment saw rolls of razor wire erected along the financial strip, which is packed with bank headquarters and corporate towers, and knots of soldiers take up positions on overhead walkways.
Reds leader Nattawut Saikuar said they would now focus on bolstering numbers at their rally base, which stretches along four kilometres (2.5 miles) of some of Bangkok’s major thoroughfares.
“Before we go into the big battle we have to strengthen our own camp because the military will soon attack us,” Nattawut said, adding that they expected the army to make its move some time before next Monday.
The crowds at the Reds’ camp, a formidable logistical base that offers food, entertainment and facilities for washing and sleeping, have hit 100,000 in the past but dwindled Tuesday to 5,000 in a usual mid-week lull.
The United States Tuesday updated its advice for US nationals visiting Thailand, saying the demonstrations were expected to continue “indefinitely” in Bangkok, but stopped short of telling Americans to stay away from the country.