News / Asia

Tensions High in Bangkok After Protesters Invade Election Offices

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Ron Corben

A standoff in Thailand between protesters and the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva continues.  Fears of possible violence are rising after scores of protesters stormed electoral commission offices.  

Anti-government protesters swarmed the national election commission offices in Bangkok, demanding a response from commissioners about allegations of illegal political donations given to Prime Minister Abhisit's Vejjajiva's Democrat Party.

But the invasion of the offices was brief, and leaders of the United Democratic Front Against Dictatorship (UDD) intervened to avoid violence.

The UDD, known for wearing the color red, largely support former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006.  The group wants Mr. Abhisit to call fresh elections.

The protest leaders say Mr. Abhisit's administration has the backing of the military after two pro-Thaksin administrations were disqualified by the courts.

For three days, protesters have occupied the Ratchaprasong intersection in central Bangkok, a prime commercial and hotel district.  UDD leaders have ignored government and police calls to move.

Under the national security law, the government can call in the military to help clear the protesters, but has not done so.

Human Rights Watch representative Sunai Pasuk says there are fears of violence, either from the protesters or the authorities.  But the protests, which began in mid-March, have been largely calm.

"Since yesterday [Sunday] the government is now being very legalistic saying that first of all the occupation and blockage of Ratchaprasong intersection which disrupted Bangkok traffic and business - is illegal under the internal security act," he said.  "And the government is now trying to get the court to back up the interpretation of the situation."

Representatives from business associations met to assess the damage from the protests.  Most large businesses in the area have been closed since Saturday, with losses for the area estimated at more than $15 million a day.

The Thai Federation of Travel Agents says tourism alone has lost an estimated $300 million since March.

Thailand has been gripped by political uncertainty for five years.  Mr. Thaksin has broad support from Thailand's rural communities and urban poor.  But the country's urban elite and middle class accuse him of corruption, and in 2005 began protests that eventually ended in the 2006 coup.

Mr. Thaksin lives overseas, having fled a two-year prison sentence for corruption.

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