- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 7, 2010

BANGKOK | Thailand’s prime minister defended his government’s gentle approach in dealing with tens of thousands of rowdy anti-government demonstrators who blocked major roads Tuesday in the capital Bangkok and pushed through lines of soldiers.

Thai authorities moved thousands of troops in riot gear Tuesday morning to confront the so-called Red Shirt demonstrators at their encampment in the middle of Bangkok’s tourist and shopping district, where they have carried on their weeks-long protest calling for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and call new elections.

Local merchants have complained the boisterous demonstrations have cost them billions of baht (millions of dollars), and luxury hotels near the site have been under virtual siege.

“The hotel is pretty much emptying out,” said Four Seasons hotel General Manager Rainer Stamper. “During Easter break, we would expect to be full.”

In the nearly empty lobby of his hotel sat one of his guests, Swiss tourist Helen Egli, lamenting the timing of her family’s holiday to Thailand.

“We wanted to shop but all the malls were closed,” she said. “We chose this hotel because it’s such a good, central location. Today, it’s not such a good location.”

Mr. Abhisit has been under pressure to use force to oust the protesters and restore order, but so far he has been willing to wait them out. On Tuesday, the government obtained legal authority to arrest Red Shirt leaders, but said they could only be detained during the act of speaking to crowds.

A ban already had been issued on the demonstrators taking their protest to 11 main streets, but they surged past lines of soldiers and police Tuesday to parade raucously. A tide of red streamed through the Silom Road financial center, with horns blaring and loudspeakers playing the folk music of rural Thailand.

The deployment of thousands of troops around the downtown protest site had triggered fears of a crackdown.

Because of the heated situation, Mr. Abhisit interrupted programming on all channels with a brief TV address Tuesday afternoon, saying his government “eased our security measures to ensure that no confrontation would spiral out of control.”

“We are confident in using the law to resolve the problem and move things forward. I know that many of you who would like to see things set straight and the rules of law respected,” he said.

“But the current fragile situation, involving a large number of misinformed people, demands careful maneuvering. We need to plan and implement everything to the last detail and with thorough care,” Mr. Abhisit said.

Charnvit Kasetsiri, one of the country’s most prominent historians, called the situation “a game of brinkmanship.”

“It’s about who’s going to blink or make the first mistake, and whoever makes the first mistake will inevitably lose,” Mr. Charnvit said.

Although the crowd and security forces have avoided violent clashes so far, there were minor scuffles Tuesday. A grenade exploded in the parking lot of Mr. Abhisit’s ruling Democrat Party’s headquarters, injuring two police officers, party officials said. Dozens of similar unclaimed blasts have targeted government offices since protests started March 12.

The Red Shirt movement — known formally as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship — contends that Mr. Abhisit came to power illegitimately in the years after ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed in a 2006 coup on corruption allegations. The group is made up largely of Thaksin supporters and pro-democracy activists who opposed the putsch.

AP writer Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report.

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