Thai protesters stockpile weapons as stand-off continues

Thai protesters today vowed to fortify their sprawling encampment in Bangkok’s upmarket hotel-and-shopping district before venturing out to “wage a big war” to topple the government.

Thai protesters today vowed to fortify their sprawling encampment in Bangkok’s upmarket hotel-and-shopping district before venturing out to “wage a big war” to topple the government.

Soldiers in full combat gear guarded other nearby sections of the capital in an increasingly tense stand-off that has shut five-star hotels and shopping malls and threatens to damage Thailand’s image as a tourist paradise.

Key protest leader Nattawut Saikua cancelled a rally that had been planned for today. He said that thousands of protesters were instead shoring up their defences while guards dressed in black, some with bulletproof vests, set up new checkpoints in the areas they now occupy.

Protesters were seen sharpening hundreds of long bamboo rods and piling them into tall stacks, part of an arsenal of crude weaponry that also included broken up pavement stones.

The “Red Shirt” protesters – who are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva call early elections – have been occupying the Rajprasong district for more than a month and now are camping in nearby main roads covering several city blocks.

Red Shirt security patrols are manning checkpoints fortified by barbed wire, controlling traffic into and out of the protest zone.

Security forces moved into nearby Silom Road yesterday to deter any Red Shirt incursion into the central business district, where several major banks and corporations have their headquarters.

The stand-off in Bangkok has cost traders tens of millions of dollars.

One hotel inside the protest zone, the Holiday Inn, closed its doors today while the neighbouring InterContinental told all remaining guests to check out. Both said they would reopen next Monday. Other hotels across Bangkok reported dramatic drops in occupancy rates.

Nattawut had promised a large rally today at an unnamed location, but later said the protesters would first work to prevent soldiers from clearing them out of their camps.

Nattawut also indicated that the demonstrators were open to negotiations to end 40 days of confrontations and chaos in the city.

“Our group is always open to outsider suggestions. Whatever group wants to propose a solution to the crisis, we’re happy to hear these solutions,” Nattawut said.

Abhisit said he would not set a date for protesters to be forced out of their encampment.

The Red Shirt protesters, formally known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, initially were camped in a historic district of Bangkok. A failed April 10 attempt by security forces to flush them from there erupted into the worst political violence Thailand has seen in 18 years, leaving 25 dead and more than 800 wounded.

The protesters consist mainly of poor rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006.

They believe Abhisit’s government is illegitimate because it came to power through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected, pro-Thaksin administrations.

The conflict has been characterised by some as class warfare, pitting the country’s vast rural poor against an elite that has traditionally held power.

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