- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 27, 2010

BANGKOK (AP) — Anti-government protesters forced a rush hour shutdown of Bangkok’s busy elevated train system Tuesday and promised to expand protests that have plunged the Thai capital into chaos by sending teams of demonstrators throughout the city.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has broken off negotiations with the protesters occupying parts of central Bangkok, said he hoped to resolve the crisis soon without resorting to force, but he also deployed hundreds of soldiers armed with automatic weapons to guard stations and other major city boulevards.

“We recognize that as every day passes by, the people of Thailand suffer, the country suffers, but we want to make sure that there is rule of law,” Mr. Abhisit told CNN, according to quotes posted on the news channel’s website. “We will try to enforce the law with minimum losses and we will try to find a political resolution, but it takes time, patience and cooperation.”

At least 26 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 wounded since protesters known as the Red Shirts — who hail mostly from poor, rural provinces and view the government as illegitimate — began occupying parts of Bangkok in mid-March, closing down five-star hotels and shopping malls and devastating the country’s vital tourism industry.

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The government has not given a clear statement of how it plans to end the standoff after rejecting a Red Shirt compromise proposal over the weekend to disband Parliament within 30 days instead of immediately. Dissolving parliament would trigger elections, which Mr. Abhisit would likely lose.

In his interview with CNN, recorded Monday, Mr. Abhisit said he could not disband the legislature without consulting other parties and said any political negotiations “should be conducted under conditions where there’s peace, where people are allowed to express their opinions, and not under force or intimidation by a small group of people.”

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban warned Tuesday that security forces would “intensify operations,” but did not elaborate or say whether authorities would try to evict protesters from the streets, which would almost certainly lead to more bloodshed.

Thailand’s ailing King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, whose intervention is seen as the best hope for a resolution, spoke publicly Monday evening for the first time since the crisis began. He made no direct comment on the political situation during a ceremony to appoint new judges, but made oblique calls for stability.

“In the country, there might be people who neglect their duties, but you can set an example that there are those who perform their duties strictly and honestly,” the 82-year-old king said.

The king’s lack of a clear statement signaled he was not prepared to take a public role in resolving the chaos, as he did in 1973 when he stopped bloodshed during a student uprising and again in 1992 during anti-military street protests.

Before sunrise Tuesday, a group of Red Shirts entered a downtown Skytrain station and placed 30 tires on the platform, prompting authorities to suspend service for four hours, the Bangkok Mass Transit System said in a statement. Authorities checked security and restarted the trains in midmorning, though they planned to close stations after dark amid fears of more violence.

A Red Shirt protest leader said his group took the action after hearing that soldiers would use the trains to send reinforcements to their main protest site.

“Bangkok people, please understand we did not want it to affect you, but we only want safety,” said Nattawut Saikua, a protest leader.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said security forces were deployed to “provide security and safety for the public” at train stations and on highways leading to Bangkok.

Overnight, hundreds of protesters tried to block police and soldiers who were driving to the capital from the northern suburbs to bolster security forces in the capital. Protesters boarded trucks loaded with barricades and hurled them out, while others let air out of the tires of official vehicles.

In what appeared to be an effort to heighten pressure on the government, protest leaders said they would send mobile teams out of their encampment and into other parts of Bangkok on Wednesday with speaker trucks to distribute leaflets and CDs explaining their side of the story.

Such movements could provoke friction with a group of pro-government counter-protesters, known as the Yellow Shirts, whom the Red Shirts view as representing an establishment that they feel is insensitive to their plight.

Abhisit called on the Yellow Shirts — who occupied Bangkok’s airports in 2008 to protest governments they disliked — to exercise restraint.

“We will do all we can to make sure that no clashes occur between the two groups of people,” he said.

The Red Shirts — made up largely of supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006 — believe that Abhisit’s government is illegitimate, having been helped into power by the country’s powerful military.

Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone and Grant Peck contributed to this report.

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