BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand extended a state of emergency imposed in about a third of the country during recent bloody political protests on Tuesday, saying anti-government elements continued to pose a threat.
The protests, mainly involving supporters of an ousted prime minister, turned violent in April and May. Ninety people were killed and almost 2,000 wounded, raising fears for stability in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.
Calm has been restored but the government says some in the “red shirt” movement may attempt to provoke further trouble.
“We have been informed there are people who continue to try to spread false information to spur hatred and instigate unrest,” said Ongart Klampaiboon, minister to the prime minister’s office.
Ongart, speaking after a cabinet meeting, said the state of emergency would be lifted in five provinces that have seen little political activism but would continue in Bangkok and 18 of the country’s 76 provinces for another three months.
Critics say that while the government calls for reconciliation between deeply divided political blocs, it is stifling opposition with arrests, censorship and emergency rule.
Businesses, tour operators and rights groups have called for the special law to be dropped.
“The government could justify it in times of violence but now that it is over, civil rights should be restored. Threats should be dealt with using normal law,” Niran Pithakwatchara of the National Human Rights Commission told Reuters.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said on Monday Thailand should lift the emergency immediately or frustration could lead to more violence.
Anti-government activists say the law is being maintained to help the military stop the opposition regrouping.
“As long as the decree is in place, we cannot regroup. It’s too risky even for a low-key provincial gathering,” said Somyos Preuksakasemsuk, an activist briefly detained in May.
Jatuporn Prompan, an opposition parliamentarian and the only main red shirt to be released on bail after the protesters were dispersed on May 19, said his supporters were unlikely to regroup this year.
“I told our supporters to bide their time. Just keep breathing and stay out of harm’s way,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Apart from Bangkok, emergency rule covers much of the north and the northeast, bastions of support for Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 military coup and accused by the authorities of instigating two months of protests by his red-clad supporters.
Many of these are rural and urban poor, but they also include academics, left-wingers and pro-democracy activists.
They say an undemocratic royalist- and military-linked establishment unfairly forced their champion from power.
Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon now living in self-exile, and several protest leaders were accused of terrorism after shadowy gunmen mingled with demonstrators and battled security forces on Bangkok’s streets, raising the spectre of civil war.
Thaksin, convicted of graft after he was ousted, denies any connection with the gunmen or financing the protest.
The emergency bans political gatherings of more than five people and forbids the publication and broadcast of information deemed a threat to national security or that could cause panic.
It also gives broad powers to the security forces, including the right to detain suspects for up to 30 days without charge.
Additional reporting and writing by Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Alan Raybould