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Thai Police Arrest Key Anti-Government Protest Leaders


Thai police have arrested key leaders of protests who have occupied a main government building in Bangkok since August 26. But as Ron Corben reports for VOA, analysts warn the arrests mark a setback in efforts to reconcile anti-government protesters and may lead to heightened political tensions in Thailand.

Former Bangkok governor Chumlong Srimuang is the second anti-government protest leader arrested on charges of insurrection. Thai police have issued arrest warrants for nine people on the charges that carry a maximum penalty of death if convicted.

The nine have been leading demonstrations for several months, but since August 26 protesters have occupied the main government administration building in Bangkok, forcing the government to relocate to temporary offices.

A member of the opposition Democrat Party, Kraisak Choonhavan, says the arrests mark a setback in efforts to negotiate with the government.

"The arrest of Mr. Chumlong, in fact both, has intensified the politics of Thailand and that the reconciliation, which I thought was going well, but this is a major hiccup in a way that could in fact bring us to the brink of a crisis. The heat is really up and I truly feel very saddened by the situation," said Kraisak Choonhavan.

Chumlong also played a key role in anti-government protests in 1992 that led to a bloody crackdown by the military, leading to dozens killed and hundreds injured.

The current protests are led by the so-called People's Alliance for Democracy, which has accused the government that was elected last December of acting as a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He fled Thailand in August while facing charges of corruption. Courts have since issued five arrest warrants for Thaksin.

Protests and street violence in early September led to a two-week state of emergency being declared in Bangkok. Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was forced to surrender the leadership in September on court charges of conflict of interest.

The new government leader, Somchai Wongsawat, a brother-in-law of Thaksin, had promised to promote reconciliation and talks with the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy. The Alliance, known as PAD, is reported to be calling for further protest support following the arrests.

An author and commentator on Thai politics, Chris Baker, says the arrests could be attributed to Thaksin looking to re-exert his influence over the governing People's Power Party.

"The transition from Samak [Sundaravej] to Somchai [Wongsawat] was very much the reassertion of Thaksin's influence. So, one possibility is that Thaksin is driving a harder line on the PAD. It is certainly very strange given the way they were talking about reconciliation," said baker.

Thailand has been deeply divided politically since Thaksin came to power in 2001 backed by his populist policies that won strong support from the urban working class and rural low income earners.

But the urban middle class accused Thaksin, ousted in a 2006 coup, of acting in an authoritarian manner by looking to concentrate power as well as widespread corruption in government.