Bangkok: Thailand’s embattled government, humiliated by demonstrators who shut down a 16-nation Asian summit, declared a state of emergency in the capital on Sunday and ordered armored vehicles into the streets to stem a tide of protest across the country.
Bands of anti-government protesters roamed areas of Bangkok as the emergency decree was announced, with some smashing a car carrying Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and others beating up motorists who hurled insults at them.
The protesters also commandeered public buses to try to block several major roads.
The emergency decree bans gatherings of more than five people, forbids news reports considered threatening to public order and allows the government to call up military troops to quell unrest.
But there were initial signs that the government might not be able to contain the protesters.
Associated Press reporters saw red-shirted demonstrators swarm over two of three armored personnel carriers outside a shopping mall in downtown Bangkok, while police stood by as a furious crowd beat a car in which Abhisit was riding with poles, rocks and even flower pots.
“I believe that the people have seen what happened to me. They have seen that the protesters were trying to hurt me and smash the car,” Abhisit said in a television appearance.
Demonstrators from the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship say Abhisit’s four-month-old government took power illegitimately and want new elections. They also accuse the country’s elite the military, judiciary and other unelected officials of undermining democracy by interfering in politics.
Army spokesman Col Sansern Kaewkamnerd said soldiers and police were being moved to more than 50 key points in the city, including bus and railway stations. He said the military presence was not a sign of an imminent coup a common feature of Thai political history.
About 400 soldiers armed with rifles ringed Chitralada Palace, the Bangkok residence of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. But the monarch was believed to be at his seaside palace.
Sathit Wongnogntoey, a minister in the prime minister’s office, said the government had blocked broadcasts from the protesters’ radio station in accordance with the emergency decree.
Abhisit said the government imposed the state of emergency because “we want to return the country to normalcy.”
Abhisit also vowed swift legal action against protesters who stormed the venue of an East Asian Summit in the beach resort of Pattaya on Saturday, forcing the summit’s cancellation. Thai authorities had to evacuate the Asian leaders by helicopter.
A protest leader who spearheaded Saturday’s demonstrations, Arisman Pongruengrong, was taken into custody Sunday and flown by helicopter to a military camp for questioning, said police spokesman Maj. Gen Suport Pansua.
Protests were also reported in areas of northern and northeastern Thailand, with one group threatening to blockade the main bridge linking Laos and Thailand across the Mekong River.
Editorials in Bangkok newspapers Sunday lashed out at both the protesters for destroying Thailand’s international reputation and the government for a massive security breakdown.
Tourism Council of Thailand Chairman Kongkrit Hiranyakit predicted that the country would lose at least 200 billion baht ($5.6 billion) as foreign tourists shunned the country.
At Saturday’s summit, more than 1,000 demonstrators broke through a wall of unarmed soldiers, smashed through the convention center’s glass doors and ran through the building, blowing horns, waving Thai flags and shouting demands for Abhisit to resign.
They declared victory after Abhisit canceled the summit, where leaders of regional powers China, Japan and India, and the UN secretary-general and president of the World Bank, planned to discuss the global financial crisis.
China’s Premier Wen Jiabao had planned to announce generous aid packages at the summit, including a $10 billion fund for investment in infrastructure, the official Xinhua News Agency reported in Beijing.
Political tensions have simmered since former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed by a military coup in 2006. Thaksin opponents marched last year to remove Thaksin’s allies from power, even shutting down the country’s main international airport for about a week in November. After a court ordered the removal of the previous pro-Thaksin government for election fraud, Abhisit was appointed by Parliament in December sparking Thaksin supporters to take to the streets.
Their numbers grew to 100,000 in Bangkok last week.
Abhisit imposed a state of emergency in Pattaya after the summit was overrun Saturday, but revoked it six hours later after the Asian leaders were safely airlifted to a nearby military airport.
The ongoing protests could prompt the military to intervene _ a high possibility in a country that has experienced 18 military coups since the 1930s.