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Thai govt talks tough as 'red shirts' step up protests

Thailand's embattled government has vowed to take tougher action to quell growing unrest a day after the country's ailing monarch spoke publicly for the first time since the start of a seven-week political crisis.

REUTERS - Protesters briefly forced Bangkok’s elevated railway system to shut on Tuesday, paralysing traffic, and the government warned of tougher operations to quell growing unrest in a seven-week crisis that has killed 26 people.

Thailand’s revered but ailing 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, regarded as the nation’s sole unifying figure, spoke publicly late on Monday for the first time since the turmoil erupted in his kingdom.

He did not directly address the political stalemate, telling the newly sworn-in judges to perform their duty honestly and provide examples to the public. In the past, including a bloody conflict in 1992, he stepped in as an arbiter to bring peace.

Hopes for an end to the standoff were dashed at the weekend when Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected a proposal by the protesters for an election in three months, saying an immediate poll could turn violent and refusing to negotiate under threat.

Anti-government protesters said they planned to go on the offensive on Wednesday with daily mobile rallies across Bangkok, a provocative move in defiance of a state of emergency that could lead to clashes with troops or with rival protest groups.

The red shirts had set up roadblocks this week on several highways to prevent police and troops from coming into Bangkok.

“Authorities will step up operations,” Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuangsuban told reporters. “It is clear that the protesters are not gathering peacefully,” he added.

“We will not be lenient with these people anymore.”

The red-shirted supporters of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have fortified their encampment in Bangkok’s commercial heart that has forced five major shopping plazas to close, and say they fear an imminent crackdown.

A group opposed to them called the “multi-colours” has held daily rallies in the capital, and the anti-Thaksin “yellow shirts”, which besieged Bangkok’s airports in 2008, have demanded the government take tougher action against the red shirts, raising fears of civil conflict in the capital.

Psychological warfare

Diplomats and analysts liken rhetoric on both sides to psychological warfare.

“Neither side is likely to have an immediate and absolute victory if there is another battle,” said Charnvit Kasertsiri, a prominent political historian. “Stalemate is likely to continue with many potential flashpoints unless a real political compromise is reached.”

The mostly rural and urban poor red shirts inflicted traffic chaos in Bangkok by stacking tyres on the platform of the Chidlom railway station by their protest site, apparently worried troops would use the elevated rail system to attack them from above.

Operating company BTS closed the network for nearly four hours during morning rush hour. “They threatened to throw the tyres down on the track so we had to close all of the routes for safety reasons,” a public relations official at BTS said.

The trains carry around 450,000 passengers a day in the city of roughly 15 million people.

Overnight, hundreds of red shirts massed on the Vipavadi-Rangsit road, a main thoroughfare into the city in the northern suburbs, in an attempt to stop the army and police from bolstering forces, although some army trucks got through.

Analysts say the deadlock and a possible deterioration in law and order could continue for weeks, carving into Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy, with consumer confidence flagging and the tourist industry suffering, especially in the capital.

Another three months of protests could shave 0.64 of a percentage point off Thailand’s 2010 economic growth forecast of 4.5 percent, the government said on Monday.

The stock market has been volatile, despite a good start to the quarterly results season. “The political situation looks worse,” broker Phillip Securities said in a report.

The market was down around 0.50 percent in afternoon trading, in line with other Asian markets.

Overthrow the monarchy

As the impasse deepens, the government is stepping up accusations that some senior figures in the protest movement want to overthrow the monarchy.

Red shirt leaders frequently pledge allegiance to the monarchy but accuse the king’s senior advisors of meddling in politics and orchestrating a 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin.

Some analysts see the charges as an attempt to build public support for a harsh crackdown, noting similar accusations preceded tough action against student activists in the 1970s.

Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd distributed a chart late on Monday showing the names of people the authorities said were involved in a network to undermine the monarchy. The list includes Thaksin, several red shirt leaders, academics and others involved in anti-government radio stations and websites.

The government has suggested members of the red shirt movement may have a republican agenda in a country where the king is regarded as almost divine. The red shirts deny this.

Tough lese majeste laws restrict discussion of the monarchy.

Analysts say rogue soldiers led by retired generals back the red shirts, who say Abhisit came to power illegitimately in 2008, heading a coalition the military cobbled together after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin party that led the previous government.

Thaksin, a multimillionaire former telecoms tycoon revered in by the poor and reviled by Bangkok’s elite, was ousted in a 2006 coup after six years in office marked by accusations of cronyism and authoritarianism. He fled the country and was convicted in absentia on corruption-related charges.

A CNN broadcast of Thaksin speaking in Montenegro, where he is now a citizen, went abruptly off air on Tuesday, replaced with a cable operator statement apologising for the interruption.

The government has banned opposition media broadcasts during its emergency decree.

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