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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Thailand protesters besiege ASEAN summit site

LA Times: Thousands converge on the hotel in Pattaya as Asian leaders arrive for a meeting on the economic crisis that was delayed in December because of protests.

Reporting from Pattaya, Thailand -- Anti-government protesters broke through razor-wire barricades and a wall of riot police officers and soldiers Friday in a move to disrupt a summit of Asian leaders.

After a tense standoff that lasted for hours, the demonstrators pushed past police and raced to the entrance of the seaside hotel where regional leaders, some of whom had already arrived, are scheduled to meet. The protesters, wearing red shirts, occupied the lower steps and called for supporters from around the country to join them.

"There will be no negotiations," shouted one through a megaphone from atop a cargo truck outside the hotel. "This government is illegal. The prime minister came to power with assistance from the army. It was a 'silent coup.' "

The breach came just minutes after a government official had assured reporters that the situation was under control. It was not clear whether the meeting of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, would proceed as planned. Leaders from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand and the United Nations are scheduled to attend the gathering today in Pattaya, about 90 miles southeast of Bangkok, the capital. Foreign ministers of member nations began meeting Friday.

The protesters, known collectively as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or UDD, are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They are demanding the resignation of the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and the dissolution of his 4-month-old government.

The group, known as the "red shirts," also calls for the prosecution of the leaders of an opposing, yellow-shirted, protest group that stormed and occupied Bangkok's Government House and overran its two international airports late last year in its successful campaign to oust two Thaksin-linked governments.

Abhisit, a 44-year-old Oxford-educated economist, was selected by the parliament after his political party came in second in national elections in late 2008.

The opposition's attempt to discredit and ultimately topple Abhisit's government, follows a wave of protests that have crippled Bangkok and thrust image-conscious Thailand into the glare of international scrutiny.

On Thursday night, UDD parliamentarian Jatuporn Prompon declared that a sea of red-shirted supporters would not allow the ASEAN meeting to commence.

"We have run out of peaceful measures," he told a crowd of supporters.

The government reassured the public that the summit, delayed from December because of the earlier unrest, would take place. About 8,000 officers and soldiers were deployed to Pattaya, known for its beach resorts and bars.

Since Wednesday, more than 100,000 "red shirts" have been rallying and marching in the capital. At one point, hundreds surrounded the home of Privy Councilor General Prem Tinsulanonda, who they say was behind the military coup that ousted Thaksin in 2006.

Thaksin says the movement is a "people's revolution" against the "aristocracy." Speaking to supporters Thursday in a video conference, Thaksin said, "Abhisit is too young to play this game. He should resign and give power back to the people to decide the future of this land."

Two days earlier, his supporters attacked a vehicle carrying Abhisit at a traffic light in Pattaya, smashing the rear window and pummeling his driver and bodyguards. Abhisit sought to quickly reassure foreign leaders after the attack.

"This is not the game, they cannot play like this," said Abhisit. "If they are sincere, the government is open to political reform."

Thaksin, a former police officer who became a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, has been sentenced to two years in jail on corruption charges, but he has evaded arrest and his whereabouts are unknown. He has a strong base of support among Thailand's rural poor, mostly in the northern and northeastern provinces, because of his populist policies.

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