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Updated: April 5, 2010 17:36 IST

Thai protesters occupy capital’s commercial centre

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Thai anti-government demonstrators protest pack the streets of Bangkok on Saturday. The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, also known as 'Red Shirts,' are demanding new elections and continue to call for massive street demonstrations in the Thai capital.
AP Thai anti-government demonstrators protest pack the streets of Bangkok on Saturday. The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, also known as 'Red Shirts,' are demanding new elections and continue to call for massive street demonstrations in the Thai capital.

Thousands of anti-government protesters occupied the commercial heart of Thailand’s capital on Saturday, forcing the closure of major shopping malls, and said they won’t leave until the prime minister dissolves Parliament and calls new elections.

The government ordered them out before the end of the day.

It was the fourth weekend demonstration in Bangkok by the mainly poor, rural protesters known as the Red Shirts. They poured into an area of the city lined with upscale hotels and glitzy shopping malls as they groped for tactics to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to meet their demands, after failing to oust his government through peaceful mass marches and negotiations.

More than a half dozen shopping malls, normally packed with weekend shoppers, as well as office buildings were closed for security reasons as about 10,000 protesters gathered in area, according to Metropolitan Police spokesman Piya Utayo. He said the total number of demonstrators, including those in other parts of the city and on the move, reached nearly 55,000.

Government spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn said police officers were being sent to negotiate with the protesters and give them a 9 p.m. (1400 GMT; 10 a.m. EDT) deadline to disperse and reopen the area to traffic. He did not specify what authorities would do if the protesters refused, but said weapons would not be used.

“If the government wants to arrest us, they would have to arrest every single one of us,” a protest leader, Veera Musikapong, told the crowd, saying they would remain indefinitely. Mobile toilets, food and water began to arrive, some of it brought in from Bangkok’s historic quarter where the protesters have been camped since March 12.

“Today’s another day when commoners will declare war to bring democracy to the country. There is no end until we win this battle,” another leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said as protesters beat drums and chanted “Dissolve Parliament.”

Earlier on Saturday, protesters swarmed around a Porsche car, angrily smashing its windows after its driver bulldozed a line of motorcycles the group had parked. His motive was not known.

Riot police guarding the InterContinental Hotel said the luxury vehicle finally hit a fire hydrant, and the driver battled through a group of demonstrators before police intervened and took him into the hotel.

Police, who found a handgun in the car, later identified the driver as Thanat Thanakitamnuay, grandson of prominent businessman and former Deputy Prime Minister Amnuay Viravan.

“This is just what’s wrong with this country. A rich man can drive into protesters and get away,” said Sakda, a factory worker from suburban Bangkok. He declined to give his full name.

The Red Shirt movement - known formally as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship - consists largely of supporters of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed a 2006 military coup which ousted Mr. Thaksin.

Protest leaders have portrayed the demonstrations as a struggle between Thailand’s impoverished, mainly rural masses - who benefited from Thaksin policies of cheap health care and low-interest village loans - and a Bangkok-based elite impervious to their plight.

Mr. Thaksin’s allies won elections in December 2007, but two resulting governments were forced out by court rulings. A parliamentary vote brought Mr. Abhisit’s party to power in December 2008. The Red Shirts say his rule is undemocratic and that only new elections can restore integrity to Thai democracy.

Mr. Abhisit must call new elections by the end of 2011, and many believe Mr. Thaksin’s allies are likely to win - which could spark new protests by Mr. Thaksin’s opponents.

Residents of the sprawling Thai capital are divided in their view of the Red Shirts, with some merely fed up with the loss of business, especially in tourism, and traffic jams the demonstrations have caused.

The protesters, whose numbers have at times swelled to about 100,000, have received support from lower-middle-class residents, many of them migrants from rural areas, but are detested by many in professional, business and senior government ranks.

However, some in the middle and upper classes have expressed sympathy for the Red Shirts’ demands for a better economic deal and an end to inequalities in Thai society, but do not support the movement outright because Mr. Thaksin is its shadow leader.

Mr. Thaksin, a multimillionaire convicted of corruption and abuse of power, is a fugitive abroad but encourages the Red Shirts with frequent messages. His six years in office were riddled by nepotism and an erosion of democratic institutions.

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