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'Red shirts' return to streets

world Updated: Nov 19, 2010 21:40 IST
Reuters
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At least 15,000 anti-government protesters returned to Bangkok's streets on Friday to mark the six-month anniversary of a deadly military crackdown, but there were no violent incidents.

Flag-waving, red-shirted protesters converged on the same shopping district they occupied during the April to May unrest that killed 91 people and wounded at least 1,800 in the worst political violence in modern Thai history.

"People died here," the protesters chanted, calling for those responsible for the killings to be punished. The rally was their biggest since the military offensive to evict them on May 19.

But the lack of clear leadership among the "red shirts" makes a prolonged protest this time unlikely, especially with memories still fresh of a crackdown that ended in a night of rioting in which more than 30 buildings were set ablaze.

"There have been and will be short and sporadic protests like this for some time," said Karn Yuenyong, director of independent think-tank Siam Intelligence Unit.

"They aim to energise the people and remind the government that the resentment is still there but it's not about forcing an end game yet."

The gathering at the Ratchaprasong area caused disruption to traffic and several luxury malls protectively closed their front entrances but remained open for business. The crowd swelled to 15,000 before dispersing at nightfall

The rally served as a reminder of fissures in Thai society that remain dangerously unresolved despite government promises of reconciliation.

The continued protest movement bodes ill for chances of an imminent end to a five-year political crisis that broadly pits urban and rural working class red shirts against the establishment elite, royalists, and the military, who back British-born, Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

"We'll keep coming back until someone takes responsibility for what's happened," said food stall owner Sawanee Pinnguen, 38.

"The elite have to take responsibility for much more. They have committed crimes to hold on to power. Have they no shame, killing fellow Thais?"

ROBUST ECONOMY

The red shirts are fast regrouping in Bangkok despite nearly eight months of emergency rule under which gatherings of more than five people are banned. Though technically illegal, Friday's protest was approved to go ahead as long as it was peaceful.

The emergency decree has helped to restore order to Thailand. Its economy is bouncing back, projected to grow as much as 8 percent this year.

Thai stock prices , which fell nearly 5 percent in a $1.5 billion wave of foreign selling during the unrest, are now the second-strongest in Southeast Asia.

Analysts see the protests as a low political risk, for now.

The demonstrators, many of whom support the twice-elected former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, say democracy and the judiciary have been undermined by their powerful opponents and have demanded immediate elections, which Abhisit said could come next year before his term expires, if the country is peaceful.

Several hundred protesters dressed in black and carrying red roses gathered outside a Bangkok prison earlier on Friday to call for the release of detained protesters and their leaders. Prison authorities estimate at least 150 are still being held.

Outside the Central World, Southeast Asia's second-biggest mall partially restored after it was set ablaze on May 19, protesters waved flags atop trucks carrying megaphones.

"We are back to remember those who were brutally murdered," bellowed a protest leader, Somyos Phrueksakasemsuk.

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