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Anti-Government Red Shirt Rallies Step up Pressure on Thai Government

Ron Corben | Bangkok 03 April 2010

Key shopping malls in tourist locations in central Bangkok were closed or disrupted as anti-government protesters moved to blockade several intersections in a bid to pressure Thailand's government to call fresh elections. The government was moving to impose the Internal Security Act and has asked protesters to leave the streets. Fears remain of potential violence while local business and civil society groups are calling for the rallies to end due to the impact on business and tourism.

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets of Bangkok Saturday blockading key intersections and bringing traffic to a halt in many locations.

The rallies are now in their third week with anti-government protestors, known for wearing the color red, calling for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government to call fresh elections.

Two rounds of talks last weekend between government and protest leaders, televised nationally, failed to break the deadlock. The red shirts, known to be supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, want the government to call the elections within 15 days.

But Mr. Abhisit, who oversees a 15 month old administration of six coalition parties, has offered a nine month time frame for elections after constitutional amendments have been agreed to and a new budget passed.

The red shirts accuse the government of being backed by the military that staged a coup against Thaksin in 2006. Two pro-Thaksin governments since then were sidelined by legal measures, allowing Mr. Abhisit to come to power.

Weng Tojirakarn, a key leader of the red shirts, says the movement stands by its efforts to press the government to dissolve parliament.

"We would like to show the government that in reality we have a huge number of people who support us," he said. "So the government must change its mind, that is the government must dissolve the parliament as soon as possible - let's for the sake of the government, but for my side we still have the government dissolve the parliament within 15 days."

On Saturday other Red Shirt leaders, addressing a crowd of protestors estimated by police at 55,000, said they "would do everything to pressure the government to dissolve the House".

But local business and civil society groups are starting to stage counter demonstrations. Inbound tourism to Thailand has seen declines of up to 20 percent in arrivals as several countries have issued travel advisories.

On Friday several thousand people rallied in central Bangkok calling for an end to the anti-government protests. Many fear growing violence after several small explosions have occurred in the capital and northern city of Chiang Mai.

But Dr. Weng says unless the prime minister dissolves parliament the red shirt protests will continue. "I'm afraid that the people will get angry, will get angrier. We still carry on non-violent demonstrations as long as other people still support us and as long as the government still say 'no' to the dissolution of parliament," he said.

Mr. Thaksin, who remains in exile in the face of corruption charges, has regularly called into the rallies on videophone to encourage the protesters.

Mr. Thaksin remains a highly divisive figure in Thailand. While populist policies, while prime minister led to support from the rural poor, Bangkok's middle class and urban elite accused him of corruption and abuse of power.

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