Thai troops with assault rifles and razor wire entered Bangkok’s business district to deter anti-government protesters who braced for battle on Monday, stockpiling paving stones in a standoff that threatened more bloodshed in the nation’s political crisis.
A leader of the “Red Shirt” protesters, thousands of mostly rural demonstrators camped out in the capital since March 12 to demand the dissolution of Parliament, accused the troops of preparing the area to be “a killing field.”
The government has declared Silom Road, a thoroughfare studded with bank headquarters and office buildings, off-limits to the protesters who are occupying a nearby main shopping district in their bid to oust Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and force new elections.
Protest leaders had called for a mass rally on Tuesday, with some indicating it may be staged in the business district. However, the protesters have often changed their plans to keep security forces off-guard.
With protesters already laying siege to Bangkok’s main shopping area, the prospect of a march in nearby Silom - both a business and tourist hub - threatened to sink the already shaken economy even further.
Troops initially moved in to block entry to Silom, patrolling some of the city’s most famous sex-bar strips, which are just off the main drag. Some took positions atop buildings after searching for possible snipers and along a skywalk running above the road. Others guarded bank buildings, ATM machines and entrances to subway and elevated rail.
The show of force resulted in a tense face-off. The troops later pulled back almost half its 1.5-mile (2.5-kilometer) length to protect a key target of the protesters, the headquarters of the Bangkok Bank, which was barricaded by razor wire.
Many of the demonstrators also pulled back, but piled rudimentary weapons at the intersection where the road begins, including bricks pulled from the sidewalks and stacks of bamboo rods.
“I’m worried about the force allocation pattern here. It looks greater than necessary for just guarding the Silom area,” said a protest leader, Nattawut Saikua. “They are making it into a killing field.”
Another protest leader, Weng Tojirakarn, said there had never been any intention to penetrate into Silom.
“Some people might have mentioned it, but it’s merely a personal opinion,” he said, adding that the plans for Tuesday were a secret. “Tomorrow, something important will happen.”
The Red Shirts claim Bangkok Bank has close ties to the government. They have protested in front of the building previously on a smaller scale.
A number of those returning to work on Silom after the long Thai New Year holidays expressed support for the troops.
“I’m opposed to the idea of the demonstrators entering Silom. Everything will collapse. The economy will collapse,” said Kritsana Chumkong, a 38-year-old office worker.
The government accuses “terrorists” armed with guns and other weapons of orchestrating the earlier violence and says weapons were stolen from the military that have not been returned.
The protesters consist mainly of poor rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006.
They believe Mr. Abhisit heads an illegitimate government because it came to power through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected, pro-Thaksin administrations. The conflict has been characterized by some as class warfare, pitting the country’s vast rural poor against an elite that has traditionally held power.
The Red Shirt protesters, formally known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, were initially camped in a historic district of Bangkok, but a failed attempt by security forces to flush protesters from that neighbourhood erupted into the worst political violence Thailand has seen in 18 years, leaving 25 dead and hundreds wounded.
Mr. Abhisit has come under increasing criticism for failing to clear the protesters, but the government spokesman said on Saturday there were no immediate plans for a crackdown because too many people were camped in the area to use force.
The rival, establishment-backed “Yellow Shirt” protest movement has vowed to take action unless the government deals with the crisis. The group occupied Bangkok’s airports for a week in 2008 to protest a Thaksin-allied government. They retreated after Mr. Abhisit’s arrival, but many fear their return if he is forced out.
Police have issued 24 arrest warrants for Red Shirt leaders accused of inciting violence, but so far none has been arrested. An attempt to arrest one leader on Friday was thwarted when he climbed over a hotel balcony and was lowered by rope to a crowd of fellow Red Shirts, who helped him escape.
Keywords: Thailand turmoil,