BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s government agreed on Tuesday to lift an eight-month state of emergency in Bangkok, citing an improved political climate and a less confrontational approach by anti-government “red shirt” protesters.
If the government foresees a resurgence of violence, it can turn to a less harsh security law, the Internal Security Act (ISA), which is in place and allows the authorities to impose measures such as curfews and bans on gatherings.
“The cabinet evaluated the current situation and found that the movement by protesters is more peaceful, lawful and largely symbolic,” said Supachai Jaisamut, a government spokesman.
The state of emergency was declared in Bangkok and surrounding provinces on April 7 after demonstrators occupying Bangkok’s commercial heart broke into the grounds of parliament.
It was extended to other provinces, including many red shirt strongholds, in an effort to control the protest movement, which was finally put down by the military in May.
In all, 91 died during the protests and more than 1,800 were wounded in the country’s worst political violence in modern times. The lifting of the decree in the last four provinces including Bangkok will be effective from Wednesday.
Rights groups and anti-government protesters complained the decree violated human rights and accused the authorities of abusing it to stifle political opposition and free speech.
The Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation, a body set up to manage the state of emergency, had insisted the decree was necessary because the situation was volatile.
It granted security forces broad powers and allowed arrest, searches and surveillance without warrants, media censorship and detention without charge for up to 30 days.
Gatherings of more than five people were in theory banned although the red shirts have held several peaceful rallies since May, the latest on Sunday attracting more than 10,000 people in central Bangkok.
In place of the decree, the government will use the ISA, which does not automatically ban gatherings but still allows the authorities to impose curfews and declare areas off-limits among other provisions. Unlike the emergency decree, it does not allow detention without court approval.
The lifting of the decree came five days after the first meeting between Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and acting red shirt leader Thida Thavornseth to discuss bail for the movement’s leaders and more than 100 others detained since May.
Abhisit said on Tuesday the cabinet had asked authorities to facilitate bail requests for 104 detainees who were charged with minor offences in April and May, although the final decision was up to the Criminal Court.
Thida welcomed the move but said it should also apply to the leaders, who are charged with terrorism.
The conciliatory gestures, along with Abhisit’s recent comment that an election could be held early next year if the country is peaceful, are likely to ease tension.
“Both of them have sent somewhat positive signals after the meeting that peace should hold as the country goes into election mode. But it remains to be seen if she can control the entire movement, especially the more militant people,” independent political analyst Sukhum Nuansakul said of Thida.
The resurgence of the anti-government “red shirts,” most of whom back ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, is one of the biggest political risks to Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy, which is projected to grow 7.5 percent this year before slowing in 2011.
Writing by Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Alan Raybould