- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2010

BANGKOK | Thousands of pro-democracy Red Shirt activists Sunday defied a state of emergency decree and demonstrated in downtown Bangkok - their first major act since government forces crushed their rebellion and drove them from the very same area in May.

The demonstration marked the fourth anniversary of Thailand’s 2006 military coup, which ousted the democratically elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, now an exiled fugitive around whom the Red Shirts have rallied.

Protesters mourned the 91 fellow activists who died in clashes with government forces during the Red Shirts’ nine-week siege of the luxurious downtown area in the spring. “There are deaths here,” they chanted, while others cheered, sang defiant songs, lit candles, released red balloons and festooned the streets with long red ribbons.

The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd defied harsh, state-of-emergency laws banning political rallies in Bangkok, and boosted each others’ morale after their insurrection in Bangkok was crushed on May 19.

The 5,000 to 10,000 protesters ignored police, who failed to keep key intersections open for vehicles during the afternoon, but the demonstrators peacefully left the area after sunset, as promised.

Hundreds of other Red Shirts held simultaneous rallies in northern Thailand’s cities of Chiang Mai, Nong Khai and elsewhere.

It was not clear why Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took office in December 2008, allowed the rallies to occur, as they apparently raised the morale of anti-government activists who view him as having benefited from the coup and who have sought his ouster.

The Red Shirts’ prolonged protests last spring disrupted commerce and threatened political turmoil throughout Thailand, a close U.S. ally in South Asia.

Several Red Shirt leaders remain imprisoned after Mr. Abhisit accused them of terrorism in their failed rebellion, and more than 250 other protesters are reportedly behind bars.

Many Thais and foreigners in Bangkok expressed fear Sunday that the huge rally in the Ratchaprasong intersection - equivalent to New York’s Times Square - would inspire the Reds to renege on their promise to leave in the evening and to create in a fresh insurrection.

“I also worry about the Red Shirts if they don’t go home tonight,” said one business executive who avoided the intersection.

Thailand’s TV stations ignored the protest and broadcast soap operas and other fare throughout the day.

The boisterous rally was the first large demonstration by the Red Shirts since May 19, and was monitored by mostly unarmed police and other security forces.

The Ratchaprasong intersection is walled by five-star hotels, upscale offices and apartments, and luxury shopping malls, including the charred remains of one large shopping complex that was targeted during more than 30 arson attacks on May 19 after the military crushed the Reds’ barricades.

The Reds remain angry over the military’s 2006 bloodless coup, which tarnished this country’s constitutional monarchy. Coup leaders granted themselves amnesty from prosecution after scrapping the 1997 constitution and instituting their own rewritten charter in 2007.

After the military used armored personnel carriers, assault rifles and other weapons to crush the Reds, the armed forces have maintained a powerful position, with Mr. Abhisit dependent upon their support for his political survival.

“Since Sept. 19, 2006, the military budget has almost doubled, going from 85 billion baht [($2.8 billion] at that time, to 154 billion baht [$5.1 billion] this year,” reported the Bangkok Post on Sunday.

Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, who led the coup, retired from the military in 2007 and leads the small Matubhum Party, with six seats in Parliament.

Meanwhile, Thaksin remains a fugitive, based mostly in Dubai, dodging a two-year prison sentence for corruption during his five-year term when he pursued populist but authoritarian policies, including a nationwide “war on drugs” that killed more than 2,000 people in circumstances that were not fully investigated.

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