News / Asia

Thai Soldiers, Protesters Face-Off in Commercial District

Daniel Schearf

In the Thai capital Bangkok hundreds of soldiers and riot police have taken up positions in a main commercial district popular with tourists.  The heavy security was mobilized to prevent anti-government protesters, who have been demonstrating over a month now, from marching on the area.

Soldiers armed with assault rifles and police in riot gear massed early Monday morning on Silom Road.

They spread rolls of razor wire across parts of the sidewalks and took up positions on the street and overpasses, and briefly blocked traffic.

Anti-government protesters threatened to march on the area, which the government says it will not allow.

But by mid morning only a hundred or so red-dressed protesters danced and cheered in front of barricades while traffic flowed normally and businesses were open.

Sean Boonpracong is the international spokesman for the protesters, known as the red shirts. He says they called off the march.

"There will not be a march on Silom today. But, we reserve that option to do it other when we feel like," he said.  "We want to exercise our freedom of passage, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, and we feel like … but it's not need to risk anybody hurt or killed over this."

Although the march was called off, soldiers and riot police did not immediately pull back and razor wire remained in place.

The military presence raised concerns of another violent clash in Bangkok.  

On April 10, 24 people were killed and hundreds injured when soldiers tried, and failed, to clear protesters from the city's historic district.

Both sides have blamed the other for the violence.

The red shirt protesters are mainly from the countryside and have been demonstrating for weeks demanding new elections.  They have occupied a major commercial district, blocking traffic and forcing shopping malls and hotels to close their doors.

They say Bangkok elites overthrew their democratically elected leaders in the 2006 coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He lives in exile to avoid serving jail time for a corruption conviction.

Politically charged court rulings removed successive governments close to Mr. Thaksin in 2008, and parliament elected the current government.

The government offered to hold elections in nine months and says it is willing to negotiate with protesters. But, protest leaders say they are done negotiating and will continue pressuring the government to immediately step down.

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