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Ed Jewett
04-08-2010, 05:42 AM
Protests force state of emergency in Bangkok



By Jason Szep and Kitiphong Thaicharoen Jason Szep And Kitiphong Thaicharoen Wed Apr 7, 7:57 am ET
BANGKOK (Reuters) Thailand declared a state of emergency in the capital on Wednesday after protesters stormed the grounds of parliament, forcing government ministers to flee by helicopter and raising pressure for snap elections.
The red-shirted supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra retreated from parliament but tens of thousands remain in Bangkok's main shopping district, refusing orders to leave until Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolves parliament.
The "red shirts" responded to the decree with defiance, exhorting followers in rural provinces to mass at city halls.
"We will declare war," Arisman Pongruangrong, a "red shirt" leader, told supporters. "No more negotiations."
The state of emergency bans public gatherings of more than five people and gives the army broad powers to control crowds. But Abhisit said the government would not use force.
"The government's goal is to help the situation return to a normal way of life, to maintain the sanctity of the law," he said in a televised statement hours after a siege on parliament.
The scene outside parliament was among the most chaotic and confrontational since the sporadic protests began on March 12.
Protesters massing outside gates of the sprawling complex pressed up against a line of police in full riot gear. When some "red shirts" forced open the iron gate, police melted away and hundreds swarmed on to the grounds, including dozens packed on a truck that drove into the main entrance.
They pressed up against security forces outside the lobby doors but left after about 20 minutes only to regroup outside the gates, brandishing guns and tear-gas canisters they said were seized in scuffles with military police.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and several other ministers scaled a wall in the compound and escaped by military helicopter. Some had left before the break-in, including Abhisit.
"We have achieved our mission today," Korkaew Pikulthong, a "red shirt" leader, told the crowd through a bullhorn. The ministers had held a cabinet meeting earlier and some had left before the protesters broke through.
Despite the tension, Thai stocks and the baht currency rose on confidence the government, with support from the military and the royalist establishment, will survive the increasingly bold showdown with the mostly rural and working class protesters.
'INTOLERABLE'
Foreign investors have been plowing money into the fast-recovering economies of Southeast Asia and have not left Thailand out despite the turbulence. Since February 22, foreigners have bought a net $1.73 billion of Thai stocks.
Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, however, said prolonged protests could inflict damage on the economy, Southeast Asia's second biggest, by causing output this year to be "significantly worse" than a government projection of 4.5 percent growth, and possibly delay an expected interest rate rise.
Another month of protests, he said, "... would be intolerable, not only to the economy as a whole but for the sanity of Bangkokians."
Abhisit faces pressure from Bangkok's elite and middle class and even his own government to halt the rally, but has held back to avert a confrontation many believe would cause greater damage.
Threats to arrest the protesters have not been carried out, emboldening a movement that has tapped an under-current of frustration over a level of income disparity that ranks among Asia's widest according to World Bank statistics..
An Internal Security Act that allows troops to impose order was also extended on Wednesday for two more weeks. But there was no sign of an imminent crackdown as "red shirts" parade through the city on motorbikes, cars and pick-up trucks, waving red flags.
Army chief Anupong Paojinda, who is central in Thailand's balance of power, said there was no justification to use force to disperse the crowds, an unidentified source told the Bangkok Post newspaper. "We can't since it will cause losses," he quoted Anupong as telling Abhisit. "They all are Thais."
The "red shirts" have taken aim at the urbane, 45-year-old Oxford-educated Abhisit, whom they see as a front man for an unelected elite and military intervening in politics and operating with impunity.
They say Abhisit lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote following a court ruling that dissolved a pro-Thaksin ruling party. They want immediate elections that Thaksin's allies would be well placed to win.
The "red shirts" have won new support from Bangkok's urban poor but has angered middle classes, many of whom regard them as misguided slaves to Thaksin, a wily telecoms tycoon who fled into exile to avoid a jail term for graft.
Abhisit has offered to dissolve parliament in December, a year early. Hundreds of police guarded his home on Wednesday. He canceled a trip to Washington next week to attend an international nuclear summit, although he planned to join a regional leaders summit in Hanoi on Thursday.
There is concern the crisis could squeeze long-term foreign direct investment, or FDI, which was has been volatile since a 2006 coup ousted Thaksin on allegations of corruption.
(Additional reporting by Martin Petty and Vithoon Amorn; Editing by Alan Raybould)

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