September 2, 2008 / 12:37 AM / 11 years ago

Thai army chief balks at protest crackdown

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai soldiers would not use force to evict protesters occupying the prime minister’s office, army chief Anupong Paochinda said on Tuesday despite a state of emergency giving him the power to do so.

Supporters of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) sleep as they block a road in Bangkok September 2, 2008. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

“If we thought we could use police and soldiers to get them out with a peaceful conclusion, we would do it. But we think that that would create more problems,” he told reporters after a man died in clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters.

The emergency powers invoked by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej banned public meetings, declared government buildings off limits, and restricted media reports that incite unrest.

The state of emergency is the culmination of more than 100 days of street protests by an anti-government group which accuses Samak of being an illegitimate proxy of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now living in exile in London after skipping bail on graft charges last month.

But with the army reluctant to enforce the emergency decree — Anupong said his unarmed soldiers would act only as a buffer between the protesters — the stand-off looked set to drag on.

“Announcing a state of emergency is proper and timely. But if you ask me if this is the beginning of the end? No, it isn’t,” said Puwadol Lapudomsuk of Asia Plus Securities.

The Thai baht hit a one-year low of 34.47 per dollar and the stock market ended down 2.3 percent, while most other Asian markets climbed on weaker oil prices. The index has lost around 24 percent since the protests began in May.

The deployment of troops in Bangkok raised the spectre of an army seizure of power less than two years after the military kicked out Thaksin.

But Anupong, one of the generals who ousted Thaksin only to see his allies return to power in December’s general election, said another putsch would solve nothing.

“The door to use force is closed. We must find a solution through the legal and parliamentary systems,” he said.

NOT ENOUGH JAILS

Leaders of the protest movement that has occupied Samak’s official compound for the past week vowed to continue their campaign, and they urged others to join them behind makeshift barricades of razor wire and car tires.

“There are not enough jails to put us all into,” Chamlong Srimuang, a leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), told thousands of cheering supporters in a speech carried on PAD radio and satellite television despite the media restrictions.

Some schools and shops were shut, but there was no major troop presence or curfew to interrupt daily life in the sprawling city of 10 million people.

Bangkok airport, the main gateway for millions of tourists visiting one of Asia’s top holiday destinations, remained open. But airlines halted flights to the southern commercial capital of Hat Yai after protesters marched on the airport.

Tourism, a major employer, was expected to take a hit as Australia, South Korea and Singapore issued travel warnings, with others likely to follow. National carrier Thai Airways said its bookings were down more than 10 percent in recent days.

On the eve of a threatened strike by public sector unions, rating agency Standard & Poor’s said the turmoil could deter foreign investment and more violence could lead to a cut in Thailand’s rating outlook to negative from stable.

SOLDIERS SENT IN

Human rights group Amnesty International criticized the emergency action, saying the government should not use it to “silence free speech or infringe on other human rights.”

The area around Government House was quiet late on Tuesday after the clashes which killed one man and hurt 45, the worst outbreak of violence since the PAD hit the streets in May.

Around 400 soldiers armed with batons and shields were sent to help police struggling to contain the skirmishes, which left a major avenue strewn with rocks and broken glass, and pools of blood were seen on the pavement.

Samak’s announcement of emergency rule blamed certain people, whom he did not name, for “wreaking havoc” and said their actions were undermining the economy and national unity.

Slideshow (26 Images)

“I did this to douse the fire, not to cause a fire,” Samak told a news conference at a military headquarters.

The PAD, a group of right-wing businessmen and activists whose 2006 street campaign contributed to the coup against Thaksin, says that Samak is an illegitimate proxy for the former telecoms billionaire, now in exile in London.

The PAD also paints itself as a guardian of King Bhumibol Adulyadej against a supposed Thaksin bid to turn Thailand into a republic, a charge denied by both Thaksin and the government.

Additional reporting by Bangkok bureau; Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Giles Elgood

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