March 18, 2010 / 6:24 AM / 10 years ago

Thai protesters vow prolonged rally to force elections

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Protesters in Bangkok vowed on Thursday to prolong a mass anti-government rally to force Thailand’s government to call elections, despite doubts the mainly rural movement had what it takes to sustain the rally.

Supporters of former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra shout as they approach the home of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in Bangkok March 17, 2010. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

On their fifth day on Bangkok’s streets, the red-shirted protesters called for a “class war” and threatened to make life unbearable for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva after splashing blood on the gates of his home and office, forcing him to sleep in a military base and preventing him from attending parliament.

Relieved by the lack of violence and confident Abhisit will survive the showdown, investors have poured into Thailand’s financial markets, driving the baht currency to a 20-month high and pushing stocks near 22-month peaks this week, although shares retreated slightly on Thursday.

“The rally is peaceful without violence, making investors dare to invest,” Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij told reporters, noting Thai stocks were already climbing before the protests, gaining 63 percent last year. But Kosin Sripaiboon, head of research at UOB Kay Hian Securities in Bangkok, predicted the protests could last weeks, possibly into May, urging investors to remain cautious.

“We believe the red shirts have enough capacity to continue and it could extend into April or May,” Kosin said.

The protesters, supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, say they have been marginalised by the military, urban elite and royalists who back Abhisit. They said they will ride across Bangkok on Saturday in pick-up trucks and motorcycles in an attempt to convince others to join them.

“It will be the beginning of a class war,” Nattawut Saikua, a protest leader, told reporters.

Although the number has dwindled from a peak of up to 150,000 on Sunday, tens of thousands remain, with the numbers ebbing during the midday heat before swelling again in evening to sing and dance to folks songs, and listen to political speeches.

PREMIER AT MILITARY BASE

While Abhisit is still backed by the military and a majority in parliament, a prolonged protest could start to undermine his leadership if he is seen to be failing to resolve the impasse or his ability to govern is hampered.

Concerns protesters may block the entry and exit points to government buildings have stopped Abhisit from going to his office or attending a parliamentary session near the main protest site. Roads have also been partly blocked in the historic heart of the city, testing the patience of Bangkok residents.

Abhisit, an Oxford-educated economist who came to power at the end of 2008, has operated since Friday from a fortified military base that has doubled as a safe house.

But it is unclear how long the protesters can keep up the pressure. The movement’s many leaders have different ideas on how to topple the government or when to end the rally. Its core leaders are distancing themselves from another, more militant faction who often threaten violence.

“It’s a multi-pronged struggle and it’s hard to predict which way it is going to go and whose plan is going to prevail,” said Sukhum Nuansakun, an independent political analyst.

“Their rhetoric and reality don’t always match.”

The National Human Rights Commission met on Thursday with Abhisit in a bid to defuse tension and get the two sides to talk.

“If the protests are within the rules, the government has no problem with a talk,” Abhisit told a news conference. But he declined to say whether there are plans to begin negotiations.

Analysts said a long-term street rally requires better organisation — from financing to supplies and transportation.

Lengthy rallies in Bangkok are not unusual. In 2008, protesters who opposed Thaksin’s allies in the previous government occupied the prime minister’s office for three months, and then blockaded Bangkok’s international airport until a court ousted the government.

But Sukhum said the “red shirts” look less organised.

“It’s different from the anti-Thaksin movement which was more disciplined with one clear direction and one arch nemesis.”

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Others doubt the protesters will get far without intervention by the military or the judiciary, both of which have helped to bring down Thaksin-allied governments. The military’s top brass remain close allies of Abhisit.

Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006 and later sentenced in absentia to two years jail for graft. His allies were ousted by two court rulings in 2008 which disqualified two prime ministers, paving the way for Abhisit.

Thaksin now has Montenegrin citizenship and arrived there earlier this week, officials in the Balkan country said on Wednesday.

Writing by Ambika Ahuja; Additional reporting by Viparat Jantraprapaweth; Editing by Jason Szep and Jerry Norton

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