State of emergency flouted in Thailand
Thousands stand firm at protest site
BANGKOK - Thailand's embattled leader struggled to keep the peace and his grip on power yesterday after declaring a state of emergency that was openly flouted by thousands of antigovernment protesters in the capital.
While Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej sought to tamp down newly violent unrest pitting largely prosperous urban forces against the country's impoverished rural majority, he also was hit by an electoral commission finding that could disband his party and bar him from politics.
Samak said he had no choice but to impose emergency rule in Bangkok after a week of political tensions exploded into overnight rioting and street fighting between his supporters and opponents that left one person dead and dozens injured.
His decree gives the military the right to restore order, allows authorities to suspend civil liberties, bans public gatherings of more than five people and bars the media from reporting news that "causes panic."
Samak and the army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, both said authorities viewed emergency rule as a last resort and stressed they wanted to avoid violence.
"I did it to solve the problems of the country," Samak said in a televised news conference at a military headquarters in Bangkok. "I had no other choice. The softest means available was an emergency decree to end the situation using the law."
At a separate news conference, Anupong said that if troops are ordered into Bangkok's streets, they will be armed only with riot shields and batons.
"If the military has to get involved, it will not use force and will be on the people's side," Anupong said. He dismissed speculation the army was positioning itself to seize power again, less than two years after a 2006 coup.
Tensions remained high as thousands of protesters who are demanding Samak's resignation defied the ban on assembly by staying camped out at the prime minister's official compound, which they seized seven days earlier.
As a precaution, City Hall ordered 435 public schools closed for three days, while some international private schools opted to shut for a week. The United States and other nations warned their citizens of the danger of violence in the capital.
By nightfall, there was no sign of renewed clashes or any attempt to evict the protesters. But the festive atmosphere of recent days had evaporated.
"It's a temporary lull and a new storm is gathering," said Thitinan Pongsidhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Samak's "back is against the wall," Thitinan said. "If he enforces the emergency decree, there will be violence because the [protesters] are not budging. But if he doesn't enforce it, there is a sense of anarchy rule. It's a lose-lose situation for Samak."
Democracy in Thailand has a history of fragility, with the military staging 18 coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Samak's faceoff with antigovernment protesters is only the latest conflict in two years of political tumult.
The group behind the anti-Samak protests, the People's Alliance for Democracy, formed in 2006 to demand the resignation of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, eventually paving the way for the bloodless coup that ousted him. Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, recently fled to Britain to escape corruption charges.
Many of the same allegations behind the uprising against Thaksin - corruption, stifling the media and the ruling party's buying votes from the rural poor with cash and other benefits - dominate the protests against Samak, who led Thaksin's allies to victory in last December's election.
Despite its name, the alliance - a mix of royalists, wealthy and middle-class urban residents, and union activists - argues Western-style democracy doesn't work for Thailand.