BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters streamed toward parts of the Thai capital declared no-go zones by the government on Tuesday, reversing an earlier decision to call off the march to avert possible clashes with security forces.
“Red shirt” protesters occupying the city’s plush shopping district for a fourth day were hemmed in by riot police, but called on demonstrators based at Pan Fah Bridge in Bangkok’s historic heart to fan out across the city in defiance of government orders.
Thousands of “red shirts” on motorcycles poured into the city’s embassy and banking district, blowing whistles, peeping horns and waving flags as riot police quickly moved in.
“From now we will make an offensive move,” a protest leader Nattawut Saikua told the crowd. “Let our people from Pan Fah march to all the banned 11 routes immediately. If there’s anything blocking us, break in with peace.”
The supporters of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who are demanding a new election, had earlier said they were calling off the proposed parade to avoid clashes with the thousands of riot police and soldiers who poured into the city’s busy Rachaprasong intersection to block them.
But security forces made no attempt to remove the tens of thousands of protesters, some of whom hugged riot police.
Just two hours after an army spokesman announced on national television there would be “no crackdown,” protest leaders told demonstrators to resume the march.
The defiant act will pile pressure on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to take action and put a swift end to the 25-day protest campaign.
However, a campaign that shows no signs of fizzling out has not dampened the mood of foreign investors who have pumped more than $1.6 billion into Thailand’s stock market since February 22. Tuesday was a market holiday.
The mass rally has lasted longer than many expected and leaves Abhisit with a dilemma about how to respond: anger Bangkok’s middle classes and parts of his own government by doing nothing, or risk confrontation by forcibly moving protesters defying the law but yet to resort to violence.
The decision to block, but not remove the protesters, is likely to be seen as only a quick fix by Abhisit. Protesters insisted they would continue to occupy the shopping district, which is vital for high-end tourism and businesses.
Analysts said Abhisit is now in an unenviable position, pressured to take tough action but determined to avoid clashes.
“A lot of Abhisit’s legitimacy is based on the notion that he is a stabilizing force for Thailand. This puts him in a very difficult position,” said Andrew Walker, a Thailand researcher at Australia National University.
“If he cracks down and there is violence, the image of stability is shattered.”
The mostly rural “red shirt” movement has recruited followers among migrant workers and working classes in the capital, to the annoyance of business elites and urban middle classes and underlining the social divide that has caused some foreign businesses to reconsider long-term investment in the country.
Many analysts say the protests are fueled by feelings of disenfranchisement, a widening gap between rich and poor and popular belief that unelected, powerful elites are colluding with the army or top judges to bring down governments elected by the majority, two of which were led or backed by Thaksin.
The protesters see the urbane, Oxford-educated Abhisit as a symbol of elite domination of Thai politics, accusing him of being a stooge for a powerful military who they claim masterminded his rise to power, sponsoring political defections to enable him to win a parliamentary vote in December 2008.
The “red shirts” have rejected Abhisit’s offer to dissolve parliament within nine months — a year ahead of schedule — accusing him of lacking sincerity and clinging on to power without a public mandate.
Analysts believe a resumption of stalled talks between Abhisit and protest leaders is the only way out of a standoff that could turn violent, stifling economic recovery and curtailing a recent surge in capital inflows.
“Abhisit needs to push for a third round of talks, behind closed doors. This is his best option and should be his first option,” said Nakharin Mektrairat, political scientist at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.
Additional reporting by Ploy Ten Kate; Editing by Alex Richardson