Bangkok: Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva faces a difficult choice -- compromise and call an election he could easily lose or launch a crackdown on tens of thousands of protesters that could stir up even more trouble.
A state of emergency declared in Bangkok gives the army sweeping powers to detain or remove people without a court order after protesters stormed parliament on Wednesday and forced government officials to scale a wall and flee by helicopter.
Military checkpoints are going up outside Bangkok to prevent more of the red-shirted protesters from entering the sprawling city of 15 million people, raising the risk of confrontations on Bangkok’s outskirts.
Despite the tensions, Thai stocks and the baht have been rising on confidence Abhisit and his government, with support from powerful military leaders and Bangkok’s influential royalist establishment, will survive the showdown.
“Today we will go on the offensive We can’t sit still and do nothing -- this is our right,” Weng Tojirakarn, a protest leader, told Reuters on Thursday. “We are not an illegal movement,” he added, calling the emergency decree unconstitutional.
Most analysts doubt the authorities will use force to remove the mostly rural and working class “red shirt” protesters who have been camped in Bangkok’s shopping district since Saturday -- a politically risky decision for Abhisit as his 16-month-old coalition government struggles to build support outside Bangkok.
The protest in the upmarket district of malls and luxury hotels, an area with plenty of symbolism in a country with one of Asia’s largest disparities between rich and poor, has also drawn large numbers of families, complicating any potential crackdown.
But pressure is growing on the British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit from residents in Bangkok, a stronghold of his Democrat Party, to take decisive action to end the protests, which began on March 14 when up to 150,000 massed in the city’s old quarter.
“Abhisit has been accused of finding it difficult to make decisions and he seems to be struggling here somewhat. But it is a difficult position. There’s human cost involved,” said Danny Richards, senior Asia editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
A messy crackdown could also spark looting in an area studded with smart department stores, a concern for retailers already reeling from lost business.
Abhisit assured the public on Wednesday the emergency decree would not be used for a crackdown. In recent weeks, he has offered to dissolve parliament in December, a year early, but protesters are demanding an immediate election.
The supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have taken aim at the urbane, 45-year-old Abhisit, whom they see as a front man for an unelected elite and military intervening in politics and operating with impunity.
While the “red shirts” appear to have won support from Bangkok’s urban poor, they have angered middle classes, many of whom regard them as misguided slaves to Thaksin, a telecoms tycoon who fled into exile to avoid a jail term for graft.
The protesters 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. If allies of the “red shirts” were to prevail in an election, it would probably spark a new round of protests by Thaksin’s opponents.
Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said on Wednesday prolonged “red shirt” protests could cause growth in the economy, Southeast Asia’s second biggest, to be “significantly worse” than a government projection of 4.5 percent, and the unrest could also delay an expected interest rate rise.
But foreign investors have been ploughing money into the fast-recovering economies of Southeast Asia and have not left Thailand out despite the turbulence. Since Feb. 22, foreigners have bought more than $1.7 billion net of Thai stocks.