Thai Prime Minister Gives Army Chief Extended Powers Amid Crisis

Thailand’s prime minister talked tough and handed more law and order powers to the army Friday after security forces were humiliated when an anti-government protest leader escaped a police raid by clambering down a rope from a hotel balcony in broad daylight as supporters cheered.

The escape by Arisman Pongruangrong – and the temporary taking as hostages of two senior police officers to secure his gateway – was the latest demonstration of the government’s inability to rein in the so-called Red Shirt protesters, who have been blocking Bangkok’s streets for more than a month, demanding a change in government.

Less than 30 minutes before the failed attempt to capture Pongruanrong, the deputy PM had gone on national television and stated that an elite unit had been deployed to the SC Park Hotel in Bangkok to arrest “terrorists” and leaders of the so-called Red Shirt movement.

Mr. Pongruangrong was filmed climbing down a cable and into a waiting car, while two others also escaped. He scaled down the hotel’s facade from the third story using a rope ladder. He successfully eluded troops, dashing into a getaway car amid a crowd of supporters. He was driven away in the car, along with two high-ranking security officers who had been taken hostage by Red Shirt backers.

An estimated 1,000 demonstrators had gathered outside the SC Park Hotel, but dispersed shortly after the leaders escaped.

Arisman said the two officers were taken hostage “to guarantee our safety. From now on our mission is to hunt down Abhisit… This is a war between the government and the Red Shirts,” Arisman said following his escape. (CBC)

The Red Shirts are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in bloodless coup in 2006, and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military takeover. They accuse Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of heading an illegitimate government government because it came into power in December 2008 without winning an election, replacing a pro-Thaksin administration.

On Monday, Thailand’s election commission – an independent government body that oversees races and can disqualify candidates – recommended the dissolution of Abhisit’s party. The commission accused the Democrat Party of accepting an $8 million campaign donation from a private company and for mishandling funds the commission allocated to it.

The commission’s recommendation will now be considered by the country’s attorney general’s office. If it agrees, the country’s Constitution Court will ultimately issue a ruling.

Abhist, speaking Friday night in a special television broadcast, placed army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda in charge of the peacekeeping force meant to stop violence by the increasingly aggressive Red Shirts, formerly known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or UDD.

“A decision has been made to make the command line more effective and swifter,” Abhisit said. “Therefore I have made an order to change the person in charge to Anupong, the army commander.” (CBC)

A major attempt to clear one of the two main protest sites last Saturday ended in fierce clashes that left 24 people dead and more than 800 injured, and failed to dislodge the protesters. The protesters have since consolidated their forces at the second site in an upscale shopping and hotel district.

While their protest began nonviolently, the stalemate over their demand – they want Abhisit to dissolve parliament and call new polls immediately, while he has offered to do so only at the end of the year – has ratcheted up tension, especially as some of Abhisit’s own supporters have pushed him to sweep the protesters from the street at any cost.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see another attempt to break the red camp,” said Andrew Brown, a political scientist at Australia’s University of New England. “I think we are in a period where the shock of the violence has forced everyone to step back and take stock of things. But both sides have caused for outrage and opponents of the Red Shirts are certainly calling on the government to crackdown in more decisive fashion.” (The Associated Press)

Abhisit’s latest move seemed intended to demonstrate his resolve in ending the crisis, by taking away command of the Center for Resolution of Emergency Situations from Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and handing it over to Anupong.

Mr. Abhisit said the “unsuccessful efforts taken so far” against the protesters had prompted the government to “review structural issues.” He said replacing Gen. Suthep would help the chain of command to become more “effective and swift.” (BBC)

The move could also be seen as a way of shoring up both men’s positions. Abhisit and Anupong have come under increasing criticism for failing to take a harder line against the demonstrators. Thai media have reported widespread rumours that junior commanders are itching to crush the protesters and may seek to push Anupong aside, and Abhisit as well, by a coup if necessary.

With the appointment, Abhisit could be sending a message that he backs Anupong over his hotheaded subordinates, and Anupong – willingly or not – ends up endorsing Abhisit’s approach.

Abhisit also spoke several times of cracking down on “terrorists,” a frequent theme of government propaganda since Saturday’s street battles, in which several unidentified masked men using heavy weapons and acting with military precision fired back on soldiers who were trying to sweep the protesters from the streets.

Abhisit said the peacekeeping center will be able to “call in forces in a more united and integrated way, so that they can handle the terrorism-related activities specifically.” (The Associated Press) He also said authorities would go after those behind the violence, meaning those who they believe finance and aid the protest movement.

“Given the potential for increased state use of violence signaled by Abhisit’s pervasive use of the term ‘terrorist’ to refer to the red-shirted UDD protesters, this shake-up could be a cause of concern,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, a researcher at The Australian National University in Canberra. (The Associated Press)

Tens of thousands of Red Shirts have protested in Bangkok since March 12. They accuse the country’s traditional ruling elite – represented by Abhisit and his allies – of orchestrating Thaksin’s ouster in the 2006 coup on corruption allegations. Thaksin is living in overseas exile to avoid a two-year prison term.

The coup was followed by elections in December 2007, which were won by Thaksin’s allies. But two pro-Thaksin prime ministers were unseated by court decisions, and an opposition coalition led by Abhisit filled the resulting power vacuum.

Speaking at a forum at John Hopkins University in Maryland this weekend, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Pirmoya called Thaksin a “bloody terrorist” who has to return home to serve jail time before he is allowed to participate in politics again.

He blamed Thaksin for Thailand’s unrest and criticized countries such as Russia, Germany and the United Arab Emirates, which have allowed the former prime minister in. “Everyone is playing naive, closing their eyes and so on, simply because he was once an elected leader,” Kasit said. “Hitler was elected, Musolini was elected, even Stalin could say that he was elected also but what did they do to their very society?” (CNN)

Weng, the anti-government leader, denied the foreign minister’s claims that Thaksin was funding the current movement – saying the money is coming from donations.

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