- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 13, 2010

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s political tensions gave way to water fights at the start of the lunar New Year holiday even as anti-government protesters threatened Tuesday to march on the army barracks where the prime minister is encamped.

The red-shirted protesters, who are demanding fresh elections, promised they would unleash another street “offensive” Wednesday. They have occupied two areas of the capital for a month and repeatedly staged rallies; a failed attempt by security forces to flush them out this weekend killed 21 people.

But the beginning of the three-day Songkran festival, an annual ritual of dancing, heavy drinking and water fights, somewhat doused the tensions that sparked the country’s worst political violence in nearly two decades.

Revelers flooded some streets in Bangkok on Tuesday, driving around in pickup trucks packed with barrels of water, splashing pedestrians, passengers on buses and motorcyclists. In the tourist hangout of Khao San road — a bar and hotel-lined street where violence between protesters and soldiers spilled on Saturday — foreigners joined in, firing at each other with super-sized water guns. An elephant, under the guidance of a handler, sprayed people with water from its trunk.

“This is such a great relief from politics,” said Jetsada Pinyomongkol, brandishing a giant pink-and-yellow water gun. “I think many people get sick of it. Everywhere you turn to it’s Red Shirt this, government that. It’s great that we could put the differences aside for at least today.”

At loggerheads in the yearslong struggle for power in Thailand are the rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — whose ouster in a 2006 coup exposed the country’s deep political divisions — and the traditional ruling elite represented by current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his allies. The Red Shirts claim Mr. Abhisit, whose supporters include business leaders, the military brass and members of the urban middle class, took power illegitimately.

Denchai Thanuson, a protester, said he decided to stay in Bangkok to “fight for democracy” instead of celebrating Songkran in his village in an outlying province. As he spoke his children clambered atop military armored cars crippled in the clashes and shot off their water guns.

A new feature of the holiday this year were red bowls for throwing water printed with the slogans, “Power to the People” and “Dissolve Parliament.”

The pendulum in the monthlong power struggle appeared to swing in the demonstrators’ favor Monday when the Election Commission ordered the dissolution of the ruling Democrat Party for purportedly concealing campaign donations, and the powerful army chief threw his weight behind calls for new elections.

The moves were initially expected to blunt the Red Shirt demonstrations but protest leaders dismissed them as just a ploy by the government to buy time: The Election Commission ruling still must be approved by a court, a potentially lengthy process.

Associated Press writers Denis D. Gray, Vijay Joshi and Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report.

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