Facing 80,000 protesters, Thai military retreats
BANGKOK (AFP) – Thai troops retreated from several security posts in the capital Saturday, bowing to demands from 80,000 jubilant red-shirted protesters who mounted a rally to demand fresh elections.
The “Red Shirts” loyal to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra targeted seven points where soldiers have been stationed during two weeks of street demonstrations, including the city’s zoo and Buddhist temples.
In the face of the massive flag-waving crowds of protesters, who arrived in cars, on motorbikes and on foot, the military agreed to withdraw from positions in Bangkok’s old quarter where the Reds’ main rally base is situated.
Truckloads of soldiers were seen leaving four locations — a royal racecourse, the zoo and two temples — to cheers from protesters who turned the streets red with their colourful clothes and heart-shaped clappers.
Suthep Thaugsuban, the deputy prime minister in charge of national security, downplayed the withdrawal as an “adjustment” and said the troops would return later in the day.
“Right now they have to move out to avoid a confrontation,” he said in a news conference from the army barracks on Bangkok’s northern outskirts where the government is working from during the protests.
Women threw flowers at the departing troops who smiled and snapped photos, while other demonstrators created a carnival-like atmosphere as they sang and danced to rock music blaring from trucks.
“We came here to oust the soldiers and the soldiers stepped back,” said Reds leader Arisman Pongrungrong. “We have made one step towards victory and we’ll keep putting on the pressure until parliament is dissolved.”
“They will return to their barracks. We understand each other as we are all common people. It is not just our victory but a victory for all the peasants,” said another Reds leader Nattawut Saikua.
Thousands of protesters then marched to parliament where they burned copies of the controversial military-backed 2008 constitution enacted after the 2006 coup which forced Thaksin from power.
The military has mounted a heavy security response involving 50,000 personnel for the demonstrations, which began on March 14 to pressure Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his administration to stand down.
Police estimated Saturday’s crowd at 80,000, larger than a street parade a week ago that drew 65,000 people in a noisy but peaceful procession through Bangkok.
The route was scaled back for the latest event, which saw protesters fan out across the old city alone, in response to complaints about disruption in the teeming capital.
Hours before the latest rally, a small blast hit a government building in the latest of a series of about a dozen explosions that have been set off in Bangkok and surrounding areas in recent weeks.
Police said the blast went off outside the customs building in central Bangkok, shattering windows and damaging a van parked nearby, but causing no injuries.
The Reds, largely from poor northern areas, say Abhisit’s government is illegitimate because it came to power with army backing in a 2008 parliamentary vote, after a controversial court ruling removed Thaksin’s allies.
Thaksin, who lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption, regularly addresses his supporters by videolink and on Thursday urged them to intensify pressure on the government.
He also raised the prospect of a campaign of civil disobedience if Abhisit continues to reject demands to dissolve parliament.
The latest round of protests was triggered by a court ruling that seized 1.4 billion dollars of Thaksin’s fortune. The self-made telecoms tycoon has slammed the asset seizure as “politically motivated”.