Thai authorities moved on Thursday to arrest Red Shirt protest leaders involved in the storming of parliament, while pulling the plug on dozens of websites and a television station loyal to their cause.
The steps are the first measures taken by embattled Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva under a state of emergency announced a day earlier for Bangkok to cope with mass anti-government rallies in the capital.
A court issued arrest warrants for seven Red Shirts, including Arisman Pongreungrong, who also stormed an Asian summit in Pattaya last year, forcing it to be cancelled.
"Once leaders who prefer violence are arrested, we believe we can persuade other protesters to leave the protest site," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters, referring to a rally in Bangkok's commercial hub.
Lawmakers fled and several senior government figures were airlifted to safety after the Reds forced their way into the parliamentary compound briefly on Wednesday, prompting Abhisit to declare emergency rule.
The Thai government shut down dozens of websites and a television channel loyal to Red Shirt supporters of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra who have occupied Bangkok's commercial hub, defying a state of emergency.
Thai stocks slumped more than three percent Thursday on fears of a protracted bout of political turmoil.
Abhisit cancelled his attendance at a Southeast Asian summit in Hanoi, where fellow premiers expressed concern about Thailand's deep political rift, which pits Bangkok's ruling elite against the mainly poor and rural Reds.
Leaders of the tens of thousands of supporters of Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup, have refused to halt their protests but the authorities have avoided using force to break up the rallies.
Instead, they targeted media loyal to the red-clad movement, shutting down its satellite TV channel showing rolling coverage of the demonstrations, along with 36 websites, and vowing to clamp down on pro-Red radio stations.
The government accused the Reds' TV of distorting information and inciting unrest, warning that the next step would be a ban on the use of loudspeakers at the protest site, where there was an angry response.
"The government wrongly thinks that cutting the signal will stop Reds from gathering," said protest leader Nattawut Saikuar.
Thaksin's supporters, mainly from the poor rural north, hail his policies for the masses such as cheap healthcare, but Bangkok's powerful elite sees him as corrupt, authoritarian and a threat to the revered monarchy.
But with their main tool for mobilising the rank-and-file down, the Reds face a test on Friday, when they have promised another major rally.
The army said the number of demonstrators in the commercial district had dwindled after the TV channel was pulled.
"With a small number of protesters, it will be more acceptable for the public in the case of the government enforcing
harsher measures," military spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said.
The Reds say the government is illegitimate because it came to power with army backing through a parliamentary vote in December 2008 after a court decision ousted Thaksin's allies from power.
Abhisit's government has banned public gatherings of more than five people and given broad powers to police and military under emergency rule announced Wednesday in the capital and surrounding areas.
The government wants to avoid a repeat of last April's clashes with Red Shirts that left two people dead, six months after riot police took on the rival Yellow Shirts in bloody scenes outside parliament.
"We will not seek confrontation. We do not want to create conditions for instability," said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn. "At the same time we would like to proceed further with the implementation of the law."
Under emergency rule, "now officers can destroy the cars that block intersections and they will not have to pay for it," he told reporters.