- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

PATTAYA, Thailand | Visiting Asian leaders got a taste of Thailand’s political turmoil Friday when thousands of anti-government protesters converged on their regional summit, threatening to disrupt it unless the Thai prime minister resigns.

The face-off between the red-shirted protesters and columns of soldiers in riot gear upstaged the opening day of a three-day gathering that brings together 16 leaders from around Asia, including China and Japan, to discuss ways to cope with the global slowdown that has battered their export-oriented economies.

Street protests to remove Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva from office have grown in recent days in Bangkok, swelling to 100,000 earlier this week. With this weekend’s East Asia Summit being held in the beach resort town of Pattaya, about 2,000 protesters came in buses and trucks to the convention hall to air their complaints.

The all-day standoff is the latest episode in Thailand’s long-running political crisis and comes less than five months after Bangkok’s airports were shut for a week by a rival group of protesters.

The demonstrators gathered outside the summit site and threatened to break into the convention hall at one point. They retreated Friday evening, but said they would likely return Saturday morning.

“This government is illegitimate,” said Arisman Pongreungrong, a protest leader. “We will return tomorrow if our demands are not met.”

The protesters are supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a 2006 military coup and has fled into exile. Most come from the rural poor majority that benefited from Mr. Thaksin’s populist policies.

Mr. Abhisit, who has repeatedly refused to step down, said the summit would continue as planned.

The summit, which began Friday morning with a meeting of foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, gets into full swing Saturday when ASEAN leaders meet with their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea.

The meetings conclude Sunday with the full-fledged East Asia Summit, which also includes India, Australia and New Zealand for a total of 16 nations. With Asia’s export-dependent economies reeling, the primary focus of the meeting is coping with the global slowdown, although North Korea’s recent rocket launch is likely to come up.

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