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'We won't stop,' Thai protester pledges

September 04, 2008|Charles McDermid | Special to The Times

BANGKOK, THAILAND — Bangkok shopkeeper Rai Varopaspiman is dead tired. Months ago, she joined anti-government protesters and began camping outside the gates of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's administrative compound, demanding his resignation.

Six days ago, the situation intensified when Rai and thousands of other People's Alliance for Democracy protesters -- some wielding golf clubs, slingshots or pepper spray -- stormed the gates and set up a protest camp inside.

Arrest warrants on treason charges have been issued for nine of the group's leaders, and a court order has demanded dispersal of the crowd, which reports say has reached as many as 30,000 people.

The escalating turmoil, which has spilled to the provinces and shut down tourist hot spots, prompted Samak to declare a state of emergency Tuesday. The decree forbids gatherings of more than five people and restricts news media freedoms.

At a televised news conference, Samak said the emergency declaration was the most gentle way to restore peace in Thailand. He also insisted that he had no intention of stepping down. "I don't understand why people think I'm the bad guy here," he told reporters.

Early today, Samak reiterated in a radio broadcast that he would not resign.

A threatened mass strike failed to materialize by Wednesday night, although hundreds of Bangkok schools and several regional airports remained closed. Razor-wire barricades were erected at entrances to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, where protesters have threatened to disrupt flights.

Sundaravej, elected in January after a junta kept its promise to restore democracy, is accused by opponents of mismanaging the economy and a Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand and of serving as a figurehead for deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is in exile.

For shopkeeper Rai, last week's action was only a march of a few hundred yards, but the act of mass defiance and the occupation of the nation's seat of government are powerful expressions of the political instability and social chaos that grip Thailand.

Rai now huddles in a plastic tent alongside other demonstrators and their families trying to avoid the heat, monsoonal downpours and the noxious mud pit that the manicured grounds of Government House have become. She stands in line for meals provided by organizers and sleeps on a rattan mat on the ground.

But like many others, Rai, a 50-year-old mother of four, intends to stay put until the government steps down.

"We will stay here as long as it takes," Rai said Tuesday, just hours after violent predawn clashes between the protesters and pro-government demonstrators left one man dead, three others hospitalized for gunshot wounds and nearly 50 injured, according to local reports.

The army has been put in charge of public order, but the top army commander, Gen. Anupong Paochida, has said the military will not take sides or stage a coup. Thailand has had 18 military takeovers since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

Although a recent poll by Bangkok University reported that 68% of respondents said they disapproved of the People Alliance's actions, the movement's leaders see the state of emergency declaration as a victory.

The leader of the protests is Thai media baron Sondhi Limthongkul. Sondhi and other People's Alliance leaders have told followers to stay calm amid "hundreds of plainclothes police." Last weekend, Sondhi told the crowd: "They may shoot me here."

People's Alliance members are described by local news media as mostly middle class but also including impoverished people from large cities and rural provinces.

Led by Sondhi and discontented people within the old elites in the military and palace, they believe Samak plans to amend the constitution drafted under military rule after the 2006 coup in order to nullify corruption charges against Thaksin. Samak has denied this.

"We entirely expect that we will win," Rai said, pointing out that the National Election Commission has ruled that Samak's People's Power Party committed electoral fraud and should be dissolved.

As the protests drag on, Thailand is feeling the strain. Recent events have tarnished the tourist-friendly reputation of the so-proclaimed "Land of Smiles." Countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Australia have issued warnings for travelers.

Last weekend, hundreds of protesters ran onto the runway at the airport servicing tourist haven Phuket and refused to move until the facility was closed. At another airport, protesters blocked the only road, freezing traffic for hours and stranding passengers. As many as 30% of the nation's rail lines have been closed at one time, according to local reports.

At the prime minister's complex, riot police and bands of armed pro-government hecklers have encircled the protesters at night, sparking clashes. In response, protest leaders have distributed motorcycle helmets and makeshift bamboo weapons.

"They come when we are tired," Rai said. "They think that when we are scared, we will leave, and with less people, they can sweep us away. We have to stay awake during the night because of violence and in the day we are very, very tired."

But the protesters appear unmoved by perceptions of the crisis that Samak has called "embarrassing in front of the world."

Kritsada Tiyawanit, a 22-year-old university student whose face was painted the three colors of the Thai flag, disagreed.

"This is good for Thailand. This is democracy. This is an uprising -- our uprising."

Said Rai, "If everybody in the world knows the real situation -- they would understand. It took us 34 days to remove Thaksin and today it is 101 for me.

"We won't stop."

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