- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s ousted prime minister called for a revolution Sunday after rioting erupted in the capital, with protesters commandeering public buses and swarming triumphantly over military vehicles in unchecked defiance after the government declared a state of emergency.

Bands of red-shirted anti-government protesters roamed areas of Bangkok, with some furiously smashing cars carrying Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his aides and others beating up motorists who hurled insults at them.

At least 20 intersections were occupied by the protesters, who used buses to barricade several major roads. Police Gen. Vichai Sangparpai said up to 30,000 demonstrators were scattered around the city. Police vans at some intersections were abandoned and looted.

Ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, regarded by most of the protesters as their leader, called for a revolution and said he might return from exile to lead it.

“Now that they have tanks on the streets, it is time for the people to come out in revolution. And when it is necessary, I will come back to the country,” he said in a telephoned message to followers who surrounded the prime’s minister office.

Political tensions have simmered since Mr. Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006 for alleged corruption and abuse of power. He remains popular for his populist policies in the impoverished countryside. His opponents — many in urban areas — took to the streets last year to help bring down two pro-Thaksin governments, seizing Bangkok’s two airports in November for about a week.

The emergency decree bans gatherings of more than five people, forbids news reports considered threatening to public order and allows the government to call up military troops to quell unrest.

Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said soldiers and police were being moved to more than 50 key points in the city, including bus and railway stations. He said the military presence was not a sign of an imminent coup — a common feature of Thai political history.

Mr. Abhisit, speaking in a nationally televised address just before midnight, called on the public not to panic and to cooperate with the government to end the crisis.

Sitting at a meeting table with Cabinet ministers and top military and police officers, he declared that “the military and the police are friends of the people. They do not want to use violence. They are simply enforcing law and order.”

“In the next three to four days, the government will keep working to return peace and order to the country,” he said, without detailing what measures would be employed.

Mr. Abhisit’s government suffered a major humiliation on Saturday when it failed to stop hundreds of demonstrators from storming the venue of a 16-nation Asian summit, forcing its cancellation and the evacuation of the leaders by helicopter.

There were signs Sunday that the government might again not be able to contain the protesters.

Demonstrators swarmed over two of three armored personnel carriers outside a luxury shopping mall in downtown Bangkok, waving flags in celebration. An old lady atop one of the vehicles screamed, “Democracy!” before the protesters directed the soldiers to drive the APCs back to a military camp.

Outside the Interior Ministry, a furious mob attacked Mr. Abhisit’s car with poles, a ladder and even flower pots as it slowly made its escape. The prime minister’s secretary and his driver also were attacked and badly injured. Police in riot gear nearby did nothing.

“I believe that the people have seen what happened to me. They have seen that the protesters were trying to hurt me and smash the car,” Mr. Abhisit said in an earlier television appearance.

“The government can’t do anything,” said Lada Yingmanee, a 37-year-old protester. “We will show them what tens of thousands of unarmed civilians can do. The people will finally rule our beloved Thailand.”

Demonstrators from the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship say Mr. Abhisit’s 4-month-old government took power illegitimately and want new elections. They also accuse the country’s elite — the military, judiciary and other unelected officials — of undermining democracy by interfering in politics.

Mr. Abhisit was appointed by Parliament in December after a court ordered the removal of the previous pro-Thaksin government for election fraud, sparking Thaksin supporters to take to the streets. Their numbers grew to 100,000 in Bangkok last week.

The tensions have created a dangerous rift in Thai society, unleashing unprecedented passions among a large segment of the population, even those not directly involved in the street protests.

“We told our people to be ready and be prepared,” said Jakrapop Penkair, a key protest leader. If the military uses force, “the people will be our weapon. We are not scared. Abhisit must be ousted immediately,” he said.

Mr. Abhisit vowed swift legal action against the protesters who stormed the venue of the East Asian Summit in the beach resort of Pattaya on Saturday, smashing through the convention center’s glass doors and shouting demands for the prime minister to resign.

A protest leader, Arisman Pongruengrong, was taken into custody Sunday and flown by helicopter to a military camp for questioning, said police spokesman Maj. Gen. Suport Pansua.

Protests were also reported in areas of northern and northeastern Thailand, with one group threatening to blockade the main bridge linking Laos and Thailand across the Mekong River.

Tourism Council of Thailand Chairman Kongkrit Hiranyakit predicted that the country would lose at least $5.6 billion as foreign tourists shunned it, as they did after the airport takeovers. Tourism, Thailand’s major foreign currency earner, is especially important as the country grapples with the global economic crisis.

The ongoing protests could prompt the military to intervene — a high possibility in a country that has experienced 18 military coups since the 1930s.

“The situation has gotten completely out of hand. Violence and bloodshed is very much possible” if Mr. Abhisit does not resign or dissolve Parliament, said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a historian and former rector of Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “If the government cannot control the situation, military intervention is not out of the question.”

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