- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 20, 2010

BANGKOK — Tensions escalated in the standoff between anti-government demonstrators and Thai security forces as the army said Tuesday deadly force could be used against protesters besieging the heart of the capital.

The so-called “Red Shirt” demonstrators, meanwhile, reinforced defenses at their urban encampment — already shrouded with netting to foil the prying eyes of potential attackers — and prepared homemade weapons including hundreds of sharpened bamboo poles and broken up pavement stones.

No new clashes were reported as the Red Shirts, who have occupied Bangkok’s streets for more than five weeks, abandoned plans to march into the central business district after soldiers in full combat gear were garrisoned there to bar the way.

The protesters consist mainly of poor rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006. They want Parliament dissolved immediately and new elections called.

They believe Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government is illegitimate because it came to power through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected, pro-Thaksin administrations. The conflict has been characterized by some as class warfare, pitting the country’s vast rural poor against an elite that has traditionally held power.

Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, spokesman for the government’s Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation, said the guidelines for suppressing violent protests were being adjusted because the authorities had found, “terrorists infiltrating the demonstrators were preparing to use weapons such as throw type bombs, sharpened sticks and sticks tied with nails, as well as acid.”

Security forces previously were told to abide by seven-stage rules of engagement, where warnings would be followed by a slowly escalating use of force, meant to minimize casualties. They are equipped with live ammunition and authorized to use it in self-defense.

The authorities’ actions “will be carried out considering the safety and lives of the people, and only when there is reason to do so, including for self-defense and in extreme cases,” said a statement.

A failed April 10 attempt by security forces to flush protesters from another location erupted into the worst political violence Thailand has seen in 18 years, leaving 25 people dead and more than 800 wounded.

A spirited Red Shirt rally carried on past midnight. Earlier, a group of several dozen people opposed to the Red Shirts stood across the way and jeered them from behind the protection of a line of police.

Sa-nga Sutorn, 63, from Nong Bua Lamphu province in northeastern Thailand, stood for five hours behind a bamboo barrier. Covering his face with a mask, he held a sharpened bamboo pole in one hand.

“This bamboo pole is only for self-defense,” he said. “If they come in, I’ll fight with the pole and my other fist. I’m not afraid of the soldiers. I’m here to fight for democracy. There’s no reason to be afraid.”

Key protest leader Nattawut Saikua indicated the demonstrators were open to negotiations to end the confrontations and chaos in the city, which is taking a toll on the economy as well at residents’ patience.

“Our group is always open to outside suggestions. Whatever group wants to propose a solution to the crisis, we’re happy to hear these solutions,” Nattawut said.

The Red Shirts have been camped out on the streets of the Thai capital since March 12, and the standoff now has shuttered 5-star hotels and glitzy shopping malls — costing merchants tens of millions of dollars — and threatens to damage Thailand’s sunny image as a tourist paradise.

Abhisit said Monday he would not set a date for protesters to be forced out of their encampment, but speculation is rife that the army will soon crack down.

Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Grant Peck and Denis D. Gray contributed to this report.

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