BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai protesters stormed a satellite station on Friday, overrunning an army barricade and forcing their TV channel back on air in the first major confrontation in a three-day state of emergency.
Security forces fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters who climbed over rolls of barbed wire and forced open the gate of the compound, holding it for about three hours in defiance of an emergency decree on the 27th day of anti-government street protests seeking new elections.
Most of the soldiers pulled back from the Thaicom Pcl satellite station about 60 km (35 miles) north of Bangkok, leaving the grounds in control of the “red shirts” protesters, supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a military coup in 2006.
Authorities entered the station a day earlier and seized equipment that took their People Channel off air, saying it was inciting violence. Other channels were not affected.
The broadcasts resumed after talks between police and protest leaders, prompting the crowd to disperse. But it was not immediately clear how long the broadcasts would stay on. The government has said the channel incites violence.
“We have won a small victory, getting the protest broadcast again. But we are still fighting the big battle against the government, propped by the elite,” Weng Tojirakan, a protest leader, told Reuters.
He said the red shirts had no immediate plan to march anywhere else. “We will have to meet and discuss how to step up the fight.”
The protesters, who briefly besieged parliament on Wednesday, seized guns, batons, shields, bullets and tear-gas cannon from police and soldiers and displayed them at the station. A Reuters photographer earlier saw a policeman hitting a protester with the end of a rifle in the commotion.
Fourteen protesters, three police and a soldier were wounded, a medical center said. One red shirt suffered a gunshot wound, most likely from a rubber bullet. Others had minor scrapes.
Many investors doubt even a violent impasse will derail a rebound in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy and one of the world’s fastest-rebounding emerging markets. Thai stocks are up 76 percent over the past 12 months, Asia’s third-best performer.
“We are not so concerned about the political situation in Thailand,” high-profile emerging market investor Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Asset Management Ltd in San Mateo, California, told Reuters.
Frequent protests, violent riots, airport blockades and three changes in government in the past 19 months have dented consumer spending, economists say, but the prospect of prolonged strife is already priced into Thailand’s relatively cheap stock prices.
Despite the latest escalation of a five-year political crisis, foreigners bought $1.8 billion in Thai stocks between February 22 and Wednesday, often citing Thailand’s relatively low stock valuations and robust economic rebound.
Even if Thailand faces new elections — and more protests — few expect a big shift in fiscal and monetary policies. Five out of six economists surveyed by Reuters this week said they expected an interest rise in June regardless of the latest unrest, the same prediction they have made for several months.
“We have been investing in Thailand for almost 15 years or more. And we think that this kind of change in the Thai political environment has happened many times before,” Mobius said.
The stock market ended up 0.7 percent on Friday. The local baht currency also recovered from early weakness.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had said he will not order a crackdown on the mostly rural and working-class protesters who have also ignored orders to leave Bangkok’s main shopping district since Saturday.
Abhisit faces pressure to either compromise and call an election he could easily lose, or launch a crackdown that could stir up even more trouble.
Most analysts doubt the authorities will use force to remove protesters from the shopping area — a politically risky decision for Abhisit as his 16-month-old coalition government struggles to build support outside Bangkok.
Thousands of protesters remained at their main encampment near the upmarket department stores as hundreds of police entered police headquarters nearby. The reinforcement agitated some protesters who went to block gates of the police headquarters.
Protesters were dancing and singing to live music as night fell. Others were shopping for “red shirt” souvenirs or gathering in small groups for dinner at roadside stalls while protest leaders took turns to make fiery speeches on stage.
“A crackdown is very unlikely in the next few days unless some group does something crazy, like a serious bomb attack or an attempted attack on important figures,” a senior military source, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
Much of Bangkok was calm and life went on as normal. But two of Bangkok’s biggest shopping plazas remained shut by the protests after closing on April 3.
Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak in Ladlumkaew; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Nick Macfie